In the final hours of Republican rule, Congress on Wednesday took up a trade bill that would change economic relations with old enemy Vietnam while giving conservatives perhaps their last chance for a while to vote on an abortion bill.
House and Senate lawmakers were also working on renewing tax breaks that affect millions of people. Completing that bill could be the last major task before this Congress adjourns at the week's end, making way for the new Democratic-controlled Congress to convene on Jan. 4.
The breaks include deductions for research and development, for college tuition and for taxpayers whose states do not have an income tax.
The tax bill has become a magnet for proposals that lawmakers are keen to pass before leaving town, such as:
- Blocking a proposed cut in Medicare reimbursements to doctors, at a cost of more than $10 billion.
- A plan to open 8 million offshore acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.
- An abandoned coal mine bill, estimated to cost $5 billion over 10 years.
If the tax bill were loaded with expensive and unrelated measures, it would lose the votes needed for passage.
House GOP leaders, in a parting gesture to their conservative base, brought up a bill that would require abortion providers to inform a woman 20 weeks into her pregnancy that an abortion would cause pain to the fetus.
The legislation has almost no chance of advancing in the Senate, while the new Democratic Congress is expected to have little appetite for abortion-related bills.
Congress on Wednesday did send to the president a measure to renew the $2.1 billion-a-year Ryan White CARE Act for the prevention and treatment of AIDS.
On the to-do-list before Congress departs is approval of legislation to continue paying for most federal programs, at last year's budget levels, through Feb. 15. The legislation is necessary because this Congress was unable to pass any of the annual spending bills for the current budget year, which started Oct. 1, except for the Defense and Homeland Security departments.
This funding bill also passes off to the new Democratic majority the tough questions of how to meet spending demands for health and education programs while tackling the budget deficit.
The Vietnam bill would end Cold War-era requirements of annual reviews of trade with the communist nation. The House rejected the bill before the Nov. 7 election when the measure came up through an expedited procedure requiring a two-thirds majority.
The bill needs a simple majority of the 435-member House to pass this time, but opposition may come from textile state lawmakers. They oppose current programs that allow Haiti and some African countries to export apparel to the United States, while obtaining some of the materials from China and elsewhere.
The House plans to vote separately on the trade and tax bills, then combine them for consideration in the Senate.
The Senate is preparing legislation that includes tax, trade and Medicare payment provisions - and possibly the offshore drilling and abandoned mine bills.
The House, trying to finish up on Thursday, rushed through some three dozen mostly noncontroversial bills, including measures to honor two well-known men who recently died - economist Milton Friedman and journalist Ed Bradley - and the late baseball star Satchel Paige.
In other action:
-The House approved $289 million over five years for states to train volunteers and provide services to the estimated 50 million families caring at home for adults and children with special needs. The sponsor, Rep. Mike Ferguson, R-N.J., said his father spent six years caring for his ailing wife. Ferguson said he wanted to help families in similar situations. The Senate is expected to approve the bill.
-The House passed a Senate bill that requires the Health and Human Services secretary to develop and put in place a plan for autism research.