Capitol set for robust session

Dwindling surplus threatens education, defense increases

Prescription benefit in doubt

School accountability, patients' rights are bright spots for Bush

September 02, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Congress will return to work this week for a fall session that is likely to be clouded by worries over the sagging economy and dominated by a noisy clash with President Bush over spending priorities.

A shrunken federal surplus threatens the enactment of costly new programs, such as a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients. And it might force the president and lawmakers to scale back their ambitious plans for new defense and education spending.

But Bush says he is determined that these last few months of his first year in office will be productive, and lawmakers of both parties hold out hope for some major legislative accomplishments.

"There's a lot we've got to get done this fall, and I'm looking forward to getting back to work," the president said last week as he left his Texas ranch to return to Washington after 26 days away on vacation.

Among the most likely candidates for success this fall are patients' rights legislation and Bush's school accountability measure, two of the president's priorities for the fall that he listed last week. Less likely for action this year, but considered within reach, are his proposals to boost energy supplies and to allow more federal money to go to religious charities that deliver social services, as well as his request for greater trade negotiating authority.

"That would be a lot to get done," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. "But Bush gets very focused when he wants something."

Democrats, who won control of the Senate in June but who remain a minority in the House, have been trying to draw Bush into a rhetorical battle over who is to blame for the dwindling surplus. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated last week that his tax cut took such a big bite from the surplus that Social Security reserves would have to be tapped to help pay current government expenses.

"President Bush needs to admit that he is paying for his budget with money already promised for taxpayers' futures," Rep. Robert T. Matsui of California said in a refrain echoed by many other Democrats.

But Bush and his Republican allies say they have learned from similar bookkeeping battles during the Clinton years that voters tend to focus not on the details of the budget process but on the results.

"We're going to let the Democrats talk about process, while we focus on priorities," said John Scofield, a spokesman for the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee.

Scofield predicted that lawmakers would find a way to forge a compromise allowing significant new money for both defense and education without violating the commitment made by both parties to put the Social Security reserves off limits.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, agreed that such a compromise would be the likely result but complained that it would require fiscal contortions and creative accounting.

"There will be a lot of magic-wanding," Cardin said. "You can do anything in Congress if you've got the votes and the president is willing to sign it."

Even so, it will probably take until Thanksgiving for the president and Congress to come to terms on the 13 spending bills that must be passed to keep the government operating.

Meanwhile, other hot topics will draw headlines. These include a review of Bush's decision to allow federal funding for research on existing embryonic stem-cell lines, an issue that will be the focus of a Senate hearing Wednesday.

The scandal over Rep. Gary A. Condit's relationship with Chandra Levy promises to stretch into the fall session as a soap opera-like sideshow.

"That's all people wanted to talk about," Ehrlich said of many constituents he met during the recess. The Baltimore County Republican, who is considering a run for Maryland governor next year, said that his replies to the two questions he heard most over the summer were: "I haven't decided yet" and "I don't know him very well."

Another highlight of the fall session is likely to be an intense contest for the post of Democratic whip in the House between Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, who is a Baltimore native.

Bush's first year with Congress has been something of a roller-coaster ride. He began his term in January as the first Republican president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s to have both houses of Congress controlled by his party. Republican congressional leaders used their power to help win speedy enactment of the across-the-board income tax cut that had been the signature issue of Bush's presidential campaign.

But Republican strong-arm tactics in the Senate prompted Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont to quit that party and become an independent, shifting the balance in the 50-50 Senate to give a one-vote edge to the Democrats.

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