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Divided Congress faces unfinished business

Divided by their liberal and moderate wings, congressional Democrats return from a monthlong recess without consensus on how to tackle several pressing issues, including Iraq and warrantless wiretaps.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Divided by their liberal and moderate wings, congressional Democrats return from a monthlong recess without consensus on how to tackle several pressing issues, including Iraq and warrantless wiretaps.

Democrats control both chambers but lack the numbers to override President Bush’s vetoes of bids to mandate troop withdrawals from Iraq. They also have failed to significantly rewrite the administration’s electronic surveillance programs.

That leaves party leaders squeezed between two camps when the House and Senate reconvene Tuesday.

Anti-war lawmakers say any Iraq-related legislation that falls short of triggering troop withdrawals is pointless and gives voters the impression there is no sharp division between the two parties.

More moderate Democrats want to pursue proposals to require the administration to rest troops more often and draw up redeployment plans, even if such efforts strike some as more symbolic than substantive.

Democratic leaders tried to narrow the gap with conference calls during the recess, including one Aug. 23 that drew more than 100 House Democrats. Participants said no detailed plan emerged, in part because many lawmakers want to wait for September reports on Iraq from the Government Accountability Office and the Bush administration.

“The main goal is to continue to keep pressure on the Republicans to change direction in Iraq through their votes, not just through their words,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., chairman of the Democrats’ House campaign committee. “Exactly what form that takes is still being worked out.”

No consensus on Iraq withdrawal efforts
Some Democrats want the House and Senate to continue passing Iraq-related measures even if a Bush veto is likely. One example: a measure the House passed in early August to require longer visits home for U.S. troops facing repeated deployments in Iraq. The Senate, where most Republicans opposed a similar bill, rejected the idea.

House Democrats said they were unsure whether they would try to use a supplemental spending bill for Iraq — which Bush is expected to request this fall — to pursue policy changes. Party leaders also were mulling legislation to require a partial troop drawdown by Christmas, and a bill that would require the Pentagon to submit a report “on redeployment planning” for Iraq.

Debate over wiretapping limits
Democrats also were debating how to address the administration’s warrantless surveillance program, which roiled both chambers just before the August adjournment.

The White House sought greater leeway to intercept, without a court warrant, foreign-based terror suspects’ communications that pass through the United States, even when an American who is not a suspect is on the other end.

Democrats wanted a narrower law to make it harder to eavesdrop on an American’s communications without promptly obtaining a warrant from a special, secretive court. But their efforts collapsed, and both chambers approved an administration-backed measure that civil libertarians say could allow too much warrantless surveillance of Americans.

The new law expires in six months. Some Democrats have vowed to try to rewrite it as early as September.

Following the round of August conference calls, however, leaders agreed to hold a series of House and Senate committee hearings before drafting new legislation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told colleagues in an Aug. 14 letter that he hopes the Senate will consider “as soon as possible a bill reported by your committees that addresses the deficiencies in the recently enacted law.”

House Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said in a recent interview, “there will be a tremendous pushback on that,” as GOP lawmakers defend Bush’s position.

A full plate
Other key issues facing Congress in September and October include:

  • Spending: Senators have passed only one of the 12 appropriations bills sent from the House for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Bush has threatened to veto bills that exceed his spending plans. Many House Republicans say they will back the president, but the Senate approved a homeland security appropriations bill by a huge, veto-proof margin even though it far exceeded the president’s request.
  • Energy: House and Senate negotiators will try to resolve key differences in their energy bills. The Senate version calls for greater fuel efficiency in automobiles; the House bill would place new taxes on the oil industry and mandate more energy from renewable sources.
  • Children’s health: House and Senate conferees must resolve differences in bills to expand health insurance for lower-income children while raising taxes on tobacco. Bush has threatened to veto both versions.
  • Mortgages: Both chambers plan to address problems in the subprime mortgage industry. They may consider bills to allow the Federal Housing Administration to insure more mortgages; ban abusive lending practices; and allow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to play a more direct role in mortgages held by borrowers with modest incomes.