Showtime for the Senate

July 30, 2002

NOTHING QUITE focuses the congressional mind like the deadline of an impending recess. Especially the summer recess in an election year when lawmakers are eager to leave but don't want to go home to voters empty-handed.

Even so, the speed at which long-stalled legislation suddenly got wings before the House took off last weekend was stunning. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle may lose his job if he can't turn in a similar performance.

Two particularly important steps the Senate should take this week before following the House out of town are casting the final vote that would give President Bush trade negotiating authority and agreeing on a plan to help older Americans buy prescription drugs.

Speedy action on legislation isn't always a good thing, though. Voters should be pleased that Senate roadblocks will delay action on the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security until September at least.

Election-year fear is now palpable among lawmakers of both parties. Much of that panic was on display when Congress ditched months of discord last week to enact accounting reform legislation in hopes of reversing the stock market slide.

A compromise on the trade bill also suddenly came together, promising another kind of help for the economy. Mr. Bush would regain the presidential power - denied twice to Bill Clinton - to negotiate treaties that would open foreign markets to U.S. goods and foster competition here from foreign products, lowering prices. The measure would for the first time provide subsidized health benefits to displaced workers.

House Democratic leaders nearly succeeded in defeating the trade bill - and some Senate Democrats are also expected to resist it - because the compromise dropped some worker protections. Mr. Daschle is wisely taking a broader view and trying to get the measure to the president this week.

He's far more worried about failing to produce a prescription drug plan that voters have been demanding for years. Endangered Democrats - notably his South Dakota colleague, Tim Johnson - are desperate to have a counter-offer to the House drug benefit legislation. They are now bargaining furiously to secure the minimum 60 votes.

If they don't succeed, the Senate leader will be fairly open to the charge that he waited too long to seek a compromise.

Meanwhile, Sen. Robert C. Byrd is throwing himself in front the legislative bullet train that some hoped would carry the Homeland Security Department to enactment by the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Thank heavens the wily old West Virginia Democrat has courage enough to say what many lawmakers privately believe: Congress can't merge 22 departments and 200,000 employees in a matter of months without creating a worse bureaucratic mess than we have today.

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