Amid successes, GOP-led Congress leaves stubborn issues unresolved

For Immediate Release:

November 28, 2003

Contact:Jim Abrams

Associated Press

The congressional year ends with the future of President Bush's vaunted energy bill uncertain and no decision on how to fix the nation's crumbling highways or avoid a looming trade war with Europe. With Republicans in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, it wasn't supposed to be this hard.

Republicans enter the 2004 election year with some real bragging rights: Congress this year gave full financial backing to the military and rebuilding effort in Iraq and passed a $330 billion tax cut that Republicans credit for rejuvenating the economy. The crowning achievement was a $395 billion Medicare bill with a new prescription drug benefit for seniors and the disabled and a new role for private insurers.

Democrats saw these GOP victories as a minus for the country, blaming the tax cuts and new spending for helping push the federal deficit to a record $374 billion this year. "They inherited a surplus and turned it into huge, huge deficits," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House's no. 2 Democrat.

Congress also left Washington this week without completing half the spending bills for the 2004 budget year that began Oct. 1 and with a long list of items they failed to get through during the first year of the 108th Congress.

At the top of the list is the president's far-reaching energy bill, which stalled in the Senate in the final days of the session. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., says he'll try again next year on a bill that sponsors say will make the nation more energy independent and that critics decry as a giveaway to oil and natural gas producers.

Congress also didn't deal with a World Trade Organization ruling that a $5 billion annual tax break for U.S. exporters is an illegal subsidy. The European Union has threatened to impose up to $4 billion in sanctions beginning next year unless the tax break is eliminated. House and Senate tax-writers were unable to get together on corporate tax bills that would remedy the problem.

In another issue that pitted Republicans against Republicans, House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, wanted $375 billion to fund highway projects over the next six years, more than $100 billion above what the administration was willing to spend. Young's proposal to raise the gas tax to pay for the extra projects met strong opposition from tax-allergic Republicans, and a decision on the bill had to be put off.

Other disputes were far more partisan. Senate Democrats held up a White House-promoted bill to encourage charitable giving with tax cuts because of their anger over being shut out of negotiations on other legislation. "It's a very, very sad situation," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the bill's sponsor.

Senate Republicans fell one vote short in their attempt to overcome a Democratic filibuster on legislation to limit class action lawsuits. The two sides couldn't come to terms on a proposed $108 billion asbestos liability trust fund. Democrats also stopped a bill to limit the ability of medical malpractice victims to win monetary damages.

President Bush, in a speech in Nevada Tuesday, blamed the Senate for holding up the medical malpractice bill. "The senators must understand that nobody in America has ever been healed by a frivolous lawsuit," he said.

Partisanship was at its worst on Bush's judicial nominations. Senate Democrats used their filibuster powers -- requiring 60 votes to defeat -- to block six appeals court nominees. Republicans launched a 40-hour marathon debate to denounce what they said was an unconstitutional assault on the nominating process; Democrats pointed to the 168 judges they had approved and said the six they were blocking were too far removed from the American mainstream.

Democratic priorities made little headway. There was no action on a minimum wage increase, mental health parity, hate crimes legislation, an unemployment insurance benefits extension or a larger child tax credit for some 6 million lower-income families who missed out on the increase in the tax cut package.

"This session has been a major disappointment -- the result of misguided priorities and a refusal by Republicans to compromise in any way on their radical agenda," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, S.D.

Final action on a giant bill combining the seven spending measures Congress was supposed to have passed before the new budget year was complicated by Democratic objections to add-ons such as a school voucher program in Washington, D.C., and an administration rule that would change who is eligible for overtime pay. A final vote could be put off until January.

Among other unfinished issues:

* The House voted to ban all human cloning. Senate action stalled over whether there should be an exception for research.

* The Senate unanimously passed a bill barring employers from using people's genetic information or family histories in hiring or firing. The House has not acted.

* The Senate this month abandoned attempts to permanently ban taxes on Internet access amid concerns that state and local governments could lose millions in taxes on phone, music and movie services on the Internet.

* The House approved billions of dollars in short-term pension relief for airlines and other financially troubled companies in danger of defaulting on their employee retirement funds. The Senate is considering its own bill.

* The Senate has not gone along with House legislation to change the welfare system and require recipients to work more to maintain their benefits.