December 03, 2006

The "do-nothing" 109th U.S. Congress

Ridiculed as the "do-nothing" 109th U.S. Congress, the Senate and U.S. House of Representatives on Monday begin a brief session to wrap up whatever work they can, install a new defense secretary and approve money to prevent a shutdown of government services.

The Republican-led Congress will meet only for about another week before drawing to a close -- as lawmakers prepare for the new 110th Congress set to convene on Jan. 4 under Democratic control.

Having been blown out in the Nov. 7 elections, Republican lawmakers are getting ready to hand over to Democrats some major unfinished business, led by what to do about the increasingly unpopular Iraq war.

Republicans are also leaving unfinished long-term government funding legislation, and appear unlikely to decide whether to extend popular tax credits that expired at the end of 2005.

But before turning out the lights, the Senate seems certain to confirm President George W. Bush's choice of Robert Gates as defense secretary.

Gates, a former CIA director, enjoys strong support on Capitol Hill to succeed Donald Rumsfeld, who was fired on Nov. 8, one day after the congressional elections.

House Democrats plan a forum Tuesday to hear from high-profile critics of the Iraq war. The following day, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group submits its recommendations to the White House and Congress on how to salvage the situation.

After the new Democratic-led Congress is seated, lawmakers will be asked by Bush to approve more money for the Iraq war, which could top a staggering $100 billion.

Democrats won control of the House and Senate largely because of public discontent with the Iraq war as well as with this Congress, which critics branded as "do-nothing."

This Congress will also end having failed to enact some of Bush's top priorities, including sweeping reform of U.S. immigration laws and the Social Security retirement program.

Legislation to authorize a warrantless domestic spying program implemented by Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks has also been stalled amid constitutional concerns.

The top priority for this "lame-duck" session of Congress will be to avert a federal government shutdown.


Congress has failed to pass nine of the 11 annual bills that fund government activities in the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1. Farm subsidies, education, health and law enforcement are among the programs without full-year funding.

To avert government shutdowns, two temporary spending bills have already been enacted. The latest expires on Friday and Congress is expected to pass a third stopgap funding bill that would keep U.S. agencies running through Feb. 15.

Early next year, Democrats will try to finish the work. But in the meantime, some programs could suffer as the stopgap bills mostly hold spending to last year's level.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said that "will absolutely hurt." With growing numbers of Iraq war veterans, he said the backlog of claims for medical, pension and education benefits has swelled to more than 800,000, compared to about 773,000 last year.

A senior administration official said he was still hopeful Congress might approve this year's veterans-spending bill before leaving town, which he said would bring an increase of more than 12 percent in funds for veterans medical care.

Also on the economic front, Republican leaders were still trying to decide whether to renew a series of expired tax breaks, including child and college tuition deductions.

If they do, the tax provisions might be coupled with a U.S.-Vietnam trade deal and possibly other trade measures.

A House ethics panel is poised to release a report on its investigation into former Rep. Mark Foley's sexually explicit electronic messages to teenage interns and what fellow Republicans knew about the matter.

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