Congress limps to a finish, making way for new Democratic majority

Published 11:49 pm Saturday, December 9, 2006

The 109th session of Congress, frustrated by partisanship and criticized for its meager record of accomplishment, ended with flurry of bill-passing and promises of change when Democrats take over the House and Senate in January.

Before the predawn finish Saturday, departing House Speaker Dennis Hastert acknowledged that after eight years, the longest stretch for a Republican in the job, he will welcome a return to the rank and file. “On Jan. 4, I will be privileged to rejoin you on these benches where my heart is,” he said,

The Illinois Republican will be succeeded on that day by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She becomes the first female speaker and the first Democrat in the post since Newt Gingrich of Georgia led the Republicans to power in 1995.

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Pelosi is promising that the new Democratic era will get off to a quick start with votes to raise the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade, enact lobbying and ethics reform and lower Medicare prescription drug costs.

As often is the case in the waning hours, the congressional session ended with a mad rush to deal with untended business.

In the long final day, ending around 4:40 a.m. EST in the Senate, the two chambers passed a massive tax and trade bill, prevented the government from shutting down and approved dozens of other bills. They included an important fisheries management measure; a bill allowing civilian nuclear technology transfers to India; and bills to fund programs to combat AIDS, pandemic diseases and premature births.

Lawmakers ready to return home also were reminded of the corruption and scandal problems that helped sweep Democrats to power in the November elections.

The House ethics committee, in a report Friday, admonished Republicans for turning a blind eye for years to the inappropriate conduct of former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. He resigned in September after it was revealed he had sent salacious electronic messages to former teenage pages.

The tax measure revived some 20 tax breaks, at a cost of $38 billion over five years, and a dozen credits promoting alternative and efficient uses of energy.

It extended through the end of 2007 a deduction for research and development initiatives, and renewed a deductions of up to $4,000 for higher education costs. There were breaks for teachers who pay for supplies out of their own pocket and for taxpayers in nine states with no income taxes — allowing them to deduct state and local sales taxes.

“All Americans should be treated equally and given the opportunity to deduct their state taxes, regardless of how those levies are assessed,” said GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. In her state, which lacks a state income tax, sales tax deductions are worth some $1 billion.

The popular tax breaks became a magnet for contentious and expensive bills. The package included legislation to open up 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling and to prevent a 5 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors from taking effect Jan. 1. The GOP-crafted solution to the problem was criticized as an accounting gimmick because it would double the cost of fixing the problem again next year.

The legislation also contained measures to permanently normalize trade with Vietnam and extend trade benefits for four Andean nations, sub-Saharan African countries and Haiti. The Haiti act was the toughest to swallow for some lawmakers from the South; they said it would further erode jobs in their states’ textile industries.

The bill also renewed, with increased federal contributions, a program dealing with abandoned coal mines and the health issues of former miners.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said the legislation would shift $4 billion in health care costs from the coal companies to the taxpayers, and criticized his own party for failing to check indiscriminate federal spending. “We’re supposed to be the party of fiscal discipline and we haven’t been,” he said.

As one of its final acts, Congress approved a stopgap measure keeping federal programs running at or slightly below current levels through Feb. 15. President Bush quickly signed it on Saturday.

The action was necessary because lawmakers failed to pass the annual spending bills covering the budget year that began Oct. 1, except those dealing with defense and homeland security.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., who will become House Appropriations Committee chairman when the Democrats take over, said the bill was “a blatant admission of abject failure by the most useless Congress in modern times.”

Democrats also pointed out that the House met only 102 days this session, fewer than the 110 days of the maligned “do-nothing” Congress of the Truman presidency.

The next House majority leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., says there will be a return to five-day workweeks. In the Senate, incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he and new Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have agreed that all 100 senators will hold a private session on Jan. 4 to kick off what they hope will be a new era of civility and less partisanship.

Republicans claim some major accomplishments this year: passing a pension overhaul; renewing the Patriot Act; enacting a port security bill; and endorsing Bush’s plans to create military commissions to prosecute suspected terrorists.

This Congress could not move ahead on promised lobbying and ethics changes; failed to reach a consensus on the administration’s warrantless eavesdropping program; and did not develop a plan to deal with the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.