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Congress returns to face war, economy, election

Still smarting from the partisan wars of 2007, Congress confronts a sinking economy, a lingering war and election-year politics as it gets back to work for the 2008 session.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Still smarting from the partisan wars of 2007, Congress confronts a sinking economy, a lingering war and election-year politics as it gets back to work for the 2008 session.

The Democratic-led House reconvenes Tuesday with the familiar scenario of having to deal with a President Bush veto. The White House objected to one provision in a massive defense bill that opened the way for lawsuits against the Iraqi government.

The defense bill contains an additional pay raise for the military and Congress is expected to quickly fix the problem, either with a veto override vote - that would probably fail - or by removing the offending provision.

House Democrats are planning a vote the following week on overriding Bush's second veto of legislation to expand the federal child health insurance program. The bill passed by a veto-proof margin in the Senate but enough Republicans in the House have stuck with Bush to stop an override there.

Such legislative exercises had numerous precedents in 2007, when presidential vetoes - or veto threats - and Republican filibusters in the Senate blocked Democratic-proposed legislation or forced major changes.

Successes and frustrations
Democrats claimed several successes in their first year in power, including raising the minimum wage, boosting fuel mileage standards for cars and small trucks, increasing security at seaports and airports, reducing student loan interest rates and requiring stricter mental health checks for gun purchases.

But the constant battles over domestic spending and the Democrats' futile efforts to curtail U.S. military involvement in Iraq drove public approval ratings of Congress to new lows.

"We share the frustration of the American people and the desire to bring about change," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, stressing that progress in the new year "depends on whether Bush Republicans in Congress will choose to work with us or will continue to work against us."

Republicans see it differently. House Minority John Boehner, R-Ohio, said his party succeeded in 2007 in defining Democrats as big-government tax-and-spenders. He said the GOP "will continue to oppose these job-killing policies, and will press for reforms that will encourage economic growth and prosperity."

The Senate returns Jan. 22 to deal with a particularly divisive issue, renewal of a six-month law defining electronic surveillance powers. The law is due to expire Feb. 1. The House passed a version in November but it has a veto threat hanging over it. Reid has suggested extending the existing law for a month.

Baseball, Bush and budget
The House will also hold hearings its first week back on the baseball steroid scandal. On Jan. 28 Congress will host Bush for his annual State of the Union address. The White House will make its budget proposals in early February and a stimulus package to rescue the flagging economy is a growing possibility.

"I don't think you can just sit and watch this economy go into a recession," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., predicting that economic matters, as well as accessibility to health care, will dominate this year.

Any legislative efforts this year will be in the shadow of November's election.

"I'm a realist and I understand this is a presidential and congressional election year and it will be hard to do some things," U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue said at a news conference.

Nonetheless, Donohue said he hoped that, after the collapse of a major immigration bill in 2007, Congress might take some incremental action to address a shortage of seasonal and technical workers.

Linda Fowler, a political science professor at Dartmouth College, said Congress could end up defying the low expectations for it this year.

"The Democrats need to make a record to run on but so do the Republicans," she said. "Sometimes Congress gets pretty productive in September and October" before an election, she said, recalling the 1996 law overhauling welfare programs.

Among other issues in 2008:

  • Democrats, with no success in linking Iraq funding to an end to U.S. military involvement, may take a more targeted oversight approach this year. The Senate could take up House-passed legislation to extend U.S. criminal jurisdiction to contractors working in Iraq.
  • Both the House and Senate have passed five-year, $286 billion farm and nutrition bills. The two chambers now must work out a compromise acceptable to the White House.
  • The White House is pressing for renewal of the No Child Left Behind law, but issues remain over funding and flexibility.
  • Congress approved a free trade agreement with Peru last year, but congressional action on three other pending agreements, with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, are uncertain. Democrats want to see expansion of a program offering assistance to workers displaced by trade.
  • Congress will also probably consider further steps to aid those hit by the subprime mortgage crisis.
  • There's a full plate of leftovers from last year, including renewal of the federal flood insurance program, improving consumer safety in the wake of Chinese toy recalls, expanding hate crimes to cover gays, funding embryonic stem cell research and dealing with the alternative minimum tax.