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January 17, 2004

3 key bills await action by Congress

From: Atlanta Journal Constitution, GA - Jan 17, 2004

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Washington -- Congress reconvenes at noon Tuesday to finish appropriating funds for a fiscal year nearly one-third over, to clear other unfinished legislation, and to consider the election year requests President Bush will outline that night in his State of the Union address.

Republican and Democratic leaders agreed in pre-session comments that Congress should act swiftly to pass three bills that languished last year:

ä Some version of a House-passed spending bill that would trigger discretionary spending of $328 billion -- about $6 billion more than last year -- by 11 Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies for fiscal 2004, which began Oct. 1.

Its cost, earmarks for local projects, changes in overtime regulations and lack of a clause extending unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless have all come under attack.

ä A surface transportation bill, apportioning billions for highways and mass transit.

It has been stalled by a disagreement over whether to raise the federal tax on motor fuels.

ä Some version of the House-passed energy bill.

Final Senate action on the bill was stymied by failure to find a compromise acceptable to House Republicans -- who favor a provision blocking new lawsuits based on pollution caused by MTBE, a toxic gasoline additive -- and senators from both parties who oppose the provision.

Few other major bills -- except routine spending and revenue bills for the next fiscal year -- are expected to emerge from the second session of the 108th Congress.

The reasons for the modest expectations include election year partisanship, lack of time in a session with a six-week summer break and an Oct. 1 adjournment target, and the narrow margin of control in each chamber. Republicans outnumber Democrats by only 51-48 in the Senate and 229-204 in the House.

Fittingly, the session will begin with a roll call vote whose outcome is uncertain.

In a showdown he scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) will try to obtain the 60 votes needed in the 100-member Senate to schedule an up-or-down vote on the spending bill.

To build support, Frist sent his colleagues a reminder of all the national and regional programs funded by the bill, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) sent senators even longer lists of the projects in their home states.

Senators can't propose amendments to the bill unless they block swift action by defeating Frist's motion for cloture. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said the Democrats had "strong support for defeating the cloture vote" and would decide what to do during a caucus just before the roll call showdown.

The House opens Tuesday on a less confrontational note, with votes on three nonbinding resolutions and a popular bill introduced by Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). Their bill would authorize Congress to appropriate up to $20 million a year to train fast keyboarders to do closed captioning of live TV shows and home videos.

© 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution