updated 7/30/2005 12:13:18 PM ET 2005-07-30T16:13:18

Wrapping up work before their summer vacations, Congress shipped President Bush hard-fought bills overhauling energy policies, providing nearly $300 billion for highway and mass transit projects and rescuing funds-depleted veterans health care programs with a $1.5 billion infusion of cash.

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Bush on Saturday signed the 12th temporary extension of the old highway act, which expired in 2003, so highway money would keep flowing to the states. The president plans to sign the new six-year bill as soon as it reaches his desk.

After a yearlong struggle Bush won — by the narrowest of margins in the House — congressional approval this past week of a free-trade agreement with five Central American nations and the Dominican Republic.

While clearing one plateful of contested bills before starting a five-week vacation, lawmakers face another just as laden with thorny issues when they return after Labor Day. The agenda includes filling the first Supreme Court vacancy in 11 years, new tax cuts and Bush’s proposals to restructure Social Security and trim Medicaid spending.

Focusing on accomplishments
Leaving town until Sept. 6, lawmakers chose to focus on what they have done, not what lies ahead.

“Have we done everything we have ever wanted to do? Not exactly. But we have done an awful lot,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert said.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement passed by just two votes Thursday after Hastert, R-Ill., kept the roll call open for more than an hour, ending the most contentious free trade battle in more than a decade. The Senate had approved the pact in June.

The energy, highway and veterans health care measures all won final approval in the Senate on Friday.

Congress also sent him the first two spending bills for the next budget year, covering money for Congress itself, the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The energy bill awards tax breaks totaling $14.5 billion over the next years to encourage new oil and natural gas drilling, stimulate a rebirth of nuclear power and encourage development of clean-coal technologies and renewable energy sources such as wind power.

It also requires gasoline refiners to double their use of ethanol and extends daylight-saving time by a month, beginning in 2007.

Fiscal matters
Nine appropriations bills, including the biggest ones — defense, agriculture and health and human services — face lawmakers upon their return. Few expect they will be completed by Oct. 1, when the government’s new fiscal year begins. Until they are, those program will continue to operate at current spending levels.

Hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Bush’s nomination of federal appeals court judge John Roberts to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be high on the fall agenda. Hearings will begin Sept. 6 and Republicans are looking to the Senate to vote on Roberts’ confirmation before the court begins its new term Oct. 3.

Congress also is expected to tussle over anti-terrorism legislation, stem cell research, gun liability restrictions, pension reforms, immigration changes, oil drilling in Alaska, the estate tax and rules over how the Pentagon interrogates and prosecutes suspected terrorists.

The Senate on Friday approved its version of a renewal of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act, passed immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but it differs from what the House passed a week ago.

The House wants to extend for 10 years two of the law’s most controversial provisions: allowing federal agents to use roving wiretaps and to search library and medical records. The Senate would have Congress re-examine those provisions after four years.

Senators also will resume debate over a bill setting Defense Department programs and policies in September. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., postponed work on the bill to avoid fights with the White House over amendments delaying base closings and imposing restrictions on military treatment of terrorism suspects. Neither provision is in the House bill.

Stem cell debate
The Senate spent most of the past week debating and passing a bill to shield firearms makers and dealers from liability lawsuits from victims of gun crimes. The House approved it last year and is expected to do so again when lawmakers return from their break, delivering a major victory the politically potent National Rifle Association when Bush signs it.

Also on tap for the Senate is an effort to overturn Bush’s prohibitions on federal funding of promising medical research using stem cells from days-old human embryos produced in fertility clinics after April 2001.

Frist gave House-passed legislation to do that a big boost with an endorsement Friday, setting up the potential for a promised veto by Bush and a fight within Congress about overriding him.

The House and Senate both are expected to resume work on the president’s biggest domestic agenda item: letting younger workers divert some of their Social Security taxes to private investment accounts and limiting the growth of benefits for high-income future retirees.

With Democrats solidly opposed, however, prospects of enacting the changes are slim.

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