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House hardly breaking a sweat

Despite the burgeoning scandal over U.S. treatment of Iraqi prisoners and persistent concerns about the economy and the deficit, the U.S. House of Representatives has been keeping bankers' hours.
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The week of April 26 was eventful and troubling for the nation, yet curiously brief and serene for the House of Representatives. Thirty-five U.S. servicemen were killed in Iraq. CBS aired shocking photos of Americans abusing prisoners near Baghdad. The federal debt reached an all-time high, more than $7.13 trillion.

In the House, meanwhile, members returned to Washington on Tuesday of that week for three quick, unanimous votes at nightfall. They renamed a post office in Rhode Island, honored the founder of the Lions Clubs, and supported "the goals and ideals of Financial Literacy Month."

The next day, Wednesday, was a bit busier. After naming a Miami courthouse for a dead judge, House members debated how to extend the popular repeal of the tax code's "marriage penalty." The only real issue was whether to pass the Democratic or Republican version. The GOP plan prevailed, 323 to 95.

After two days and one night of desultory activity -- roughly their average workweek this year -- House members packed up and rushed home to their districts. Despite the burgeoning scandal over U.S. treatment of Iraqi prisoners and persistent concerns about the economy and the deficit, the House has been keeping bankers' hours.

The House's lean schedule is no accident. GOP leaders who set the agenda and floor schedule say they achieved most of their top priorities last year -- including enactment of a Medicare prescription drug bill and the third round of President Bush's tax cuts -- and are content to rest on their laurels through the election. While other House priorities are stuck in the Senate, House Republicans believe they have the best of all worlds: They can take credit for the enacted legislation and blame Senate Democrats for bottling up the rest of their agenda.

"Last year we sent a lot of legislation to the Senate, and we don't want to overload them," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) told reporters last week. "They're already overloaded. . . . We need to be here passing good legislation, doing the people's work and not doing a bunch of make-work."

House Democrats see a more cynical motive. The GOP majority, they say, wants a complacent Congress that will raise few questions about the Bush administration, despite the international uproar over the prison abuse scandal in Iraq and recent damaging revelations about Bush's decision to go to war.

"Given all the issues and problems the country faces, it's scandalous that we're only coming in to work three days a week, and even then most of the time we're renaming post offices," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "This is a deliberate effort to keep Congress out of town, keep us from asking questions."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) noted that senators held three committee hearings on the prison abuses before House leaders summoned Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to the Armed Services Committee last Friday -- a day the Senate was meeting but the House was not. DeLay dismissed the idea of a full-fledged congressional investigation, which he likened to "saying we need an investigation every time there's police brutality on the street."

Pelosi complained: "Americans are out of work. Our troops are in danger in Iraq. Our reputation is in shreds throughout the world. And we're leaving early afternoon on Thursday."

She also said, "The House of Representatives has demonstrated that it is nothing more than a rubber stamp for the administration."

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, contends that the House's anemic work schedule is symptomatic of the larger problem of political gridlock. He said lawmakers are "probably realistic in saying, 'We're not spending much time here because we know that nothing would get done.' " He added, however, that "if they stuck around and talked to each other, maybe they could figure something out."

Last week's House action was typical in many ways. It featured bitterly partisan arguments over the Iraq war, in the House chamber and in dueling news conferences. But the main bills approved were a resolution condemning the prison abuses and a long-expected one-year extension of a provision to protect millions of Americans from the alternative minimum tax -- a temporary measure that postpones difficult decisions about a major looming problem.

The week of April 19 was similar. The House held three votes Tuesday night, all unanimous and all renaming post offices. On Wednesday, members quickly passed five bills without debate, under "suspension" rules. The one drawing the most opposition -- 14 nay votes -- endorsed research and development into "green chemistry."

'Sitting in Tom Daschle's back pocket'
Thursday was that week's busiest day, as Republicans and Democrats vigorously debated a "continuity of government" bill, meant to ensure that Congress could function if many lawmakers perished in a terrorist attack. The measure, which passed 306 to 97, would require states to hold special elections within 45 days if at least 100 House members were killed. As usual, members had Monday, Friday and most of Tuesday free of Washington-based duties.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military campaign in Iraq had one of its bloodiest weeks ever. Shells killed 22 Iraqi prisoners near Baghdad one day, and suicide bomb blasts killed 68 people in Basra -- many of them children -- the next. Violence in the besieged city of Fallujah continued, and 14 U.S. servicemen were killed during the week.

The week before that, the House was in recess, as it plans to be the week of May 24, the week of June 28, the six weeks starting July 26, and all of October, November and December.

John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), defended the House's accomplishments and pace. "Last year we sent a lot of things over to the Senate, and they're sitting in Tom Daschle's back pocket," he said, referring to the Senate minority leader, from South Dakota. Those bills include tort reform to curb medical malpractice suits, energy legislation, and welfare reauthorization.

This year, Feehery said, "we've passed a lean budget" for fiscal 2005. "We're working very hard to keep the president's tax cuts in place. We're monitoring the situation in Iraq" and will appropriate extra funds as needed. House committees, he said, "have done a lot of oversight on the Iraq war," primarily aimed at seeing that money is well spent.

The House does not need showy inquiries in front of cameras to fulfill its watchdog obligations, Feehery said. "Our oversight is not politically motivated, which probably frustrates the Democrats," he said. "It's motivated by better governance."

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a top adviser in the Clinton White House, is unconvinced.

"We can name post offices," Emanuel said, "or we can ask the hard questions about the direction of our nation."

Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.