Session enters its final days with GOP wish list in tatters

Abortion, oil drilling bills might pass but fall short of original goals

December 06, 2006|By Noam N. Levey and Richard Simon | Noam N. Levey and Richard Simon,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Twelve years after Republicans gained power on Capitol Hill with ambitious plans for action on energy exploration, abortion and other key issues, the GOP is wrapping up its run at the helm this week with a legislative whimper.

One of the few bills that might emerge from Congress before it adjourns for the year would expand oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet even if the GOP succeeds in pushing the measure into law, it will be a more modest and less disputed plan than party leaders envisioned months ago

The House might pass a GOP-backed bill that would require abortion providers to tell patients that fetuses feel pain, but the measure falls far short of initiatives Republicans once hoped to enact to rein in abortions, and it stands almost no chance of taking effect because the Senate has no intention of considering the bill before leaving town.

The energy and abortion bills are examples of the last gasps of an expiring GOP wish list.

With Democrats taking control of the House and Senate in January, proposals to expand oil drilling and reduce abortions are unlikely to see the light of day during the next two years. Instead, they will join other mainstays of the Republican agenda - such as abolishing the estate tax, limiting medical malpractice lawsuits and banning gay marriages - on the legislative sidelines.

GOP lawmakers expressed resignation as they contemplated seeing many of their goals consigned to oblivion, replaced by Democrats' priorities.

"It's going to be challenge, and I say that tragically," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican whose bill on fetal pain will come up today for what is almost certain to be its last vote for some time.

A cornerstone of the Republican agenda was a pledge to control federal spending. But the party's congressional leaders have faced growing criticism from their rank and file on that front as the federal budget deficit has grown in recent years.

In the final days of this congressional session, the GOP is making little effort to pass bills to fund the federal government next year, let alone implement any long-term budget restraints.

"There is a sense that the Republicans ultimately said, `Let the Democrats sweep up after the elephants," said Ross Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

As of yesterday, Congress had cleared two of 11 government spending measures, for the Pentagon and for the Department of Homeland Security.

Rather than grapple with tough spending decisions for other agencies, the Republicans plan instead to pass a stopgap funding measure, leaving it to the Democratic-controlled Congress to adopt funding bills early next year.

G. William Hoagland, the top budget aide to outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, chalked up the Republican retreat to "a dispirited GOP."

The abortion bill before the House has been a second-tier priority for anti-abortion activists, said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.

Under it, women whose pregnancies were 20 weeks past fertilization would have to be informed of "substantial evidence" that fetuses experience pain as an abortion is performed. The bill's supporters hope such a requirement could dissuade some women from having abortions.

The measure's assertion about fetuses feeling pain is in dispute. But in a sign of the relatively low importance attached to the measure, it is not being actively opposed by NARAL Pro-Choice America, one of the nation's leading abortion-rights groups.

Republicans scored some successes in the battles over abortion during their years in power. One of the most prominent was the 2003 passage of a bill banning a procedure often used to end pregnancies during the second trimester.

That measure has yet to take effect, however, pending a Supreme Court ruling on its constitutionally. And anti-abortion activists suffered a setback this year when Congress deadlocked on a measure that would have would toughened parental consent laws involving minors who cross state lines for abortions.

Republicans have also scaled back their hopes for expanding oil drilling off the coast.

House leaders had been holding out for a far-reaching measure that would have relaxed a decades-long ban on drilling in most coastal waters, including the Pacific Coast. But pro-drilling industry groups lobbied the leaders to accept a Senate bill that focuses only on the Gulf Coast.

Noam N. Levey and Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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