A Return To The Hill

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohammed ElBaradei during a press conference after the emergency meeting on Iran of the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2005 at Vienna's International Center. (AP Photo/Rudi Blaha)
Members of Congress returned Monday from a three-week recess still needing to finish long-delayed legislative work for this year.

A House hearing on the presidential transition process highlighted the day as lawmakers were distracted by the dispute over who will be the next president.

Republican lawmakers complain that keeping $5.3 million in federal transition funds out of George W. Bush's hands will delay a new administration from getting its feet off the ground. Democrats counter that a new administration should be grounded until the election's outcome is certain.

Nearly a month after the election, the General Services Administration has yet to release $5.3 million intended for the next president's transition expenses. Republicans, certain that Bush is the winner, say this delay could seriously affect a smooth turnover of power.

Those implementing the 1963 Presidential Transition Act "must carefully consider the implications of their decisions," said Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Calif., chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee, which oversees the GSA. "Time is running out for the next administration."

Democrats said pressure on the GSA to release the funds to the Bush camp was part of a strategy of trying to affirm that Bush won the election. Giving money to the side that could eventually be declared the loser, said Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, the ranking Democrat on the panel, "could result in a loss of public funds, waste, duplication, diminished credibility for the winner and a breach of proprietary information."

David Barram, administrator of the usually obscure GSA, emphasized that law does not authorize him to pick or predict the next president and with the race so close, "it is not apparent to me who the winner is."

He said his agency is ready to move when a winner is declared, having leased office space and arranged for telecommunications services. He said he has also asked Congress to extend to 60 days, from 30, the period during which transition funds can be provided after a new president takes office.

Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill. said Congress should write a law making clear what steps the GSA must take when faced with a disputed election.

Jonathan Turley of the George Washington University Law School (who also serves as a consultant to CBS News) questioned a situation in which "before the electoral college even meets, a single, relatively unknown federal officer has been given the discretionary authority to determine to his own satisfaction who is the legitimate winner in a presidential election."

But Jack Watson, former chief of staff for President Carter, cautioned against congressional interference.

"As unusual and exasperating as the current situation is, we should take care not to overreact. The sky is not falling," he said.

Legislative agenda
Unfinished Business

Four of the 13 annual spending bills for fiscal 2001, which began Oct. 1, have not been signed into law, and agencies are being kept open under a temporary bill that expires Tuesday night. An extension is likely. The unfinished spending bills include:
  • A $350 billion education, labor and health measure that would increase spending by $18 billion for hiring teachers, Pell grants for college students, AIDS treatment and other programs. The bill also would block ergonomics regulations imposed by the Clinton administration.
  • A $39.9 billion spending bill covering the Commerce, Justice and State departments. President Clinton wants it to ease restrictions on more than 1 million immigrants; Republicans say that goes too far.
  • A $33 billion measure financing Congress' operations, the Treasury Department and the White House. Mr. Clinton vetoed it just before the Nov. 7 election, saying schools and other priorities should be paid for first. It also would repeal the 3 percent federal excise tax on telephone calls.
  • The Treasury bill also would boost members of Congress' pay by 2.7 percent to $145,100 in January. But that raise would go through anyway because lawmakers' salaries are raised annually unless a provision is enacted blocking it.
  • A $240 billion, 10-year tax cut for small businesses, some pension savers and for some health care costs. It includes a $1 increase in the $5.15 hourly minimum wage and $30 billion in higher Medicare reimbursements for health care providers. The bill, passed by the House, faces a veto because Mr. Clinton says it is too generous to small businesses and HMOs.
  • Watson and several other former chiefs of staff said the larger issue that Congress needs to address is the onerous and time-consuming confirmation process for political appointees in a new administration.

    John Sununu, chief of staff for Bush's father, President George Bush, recalled getting more than 40,000 resumes when Bush was preparing to take office in 1988. He said a one-month delay "now will be reflected in a six-month to one-year delay in getting things really started."

    Beyond the hearing, lawmakers were returning this week to a legislative schedule that provides few clues as to how they will end the ninth lame duck session of the last half-century.

    Congress has yet to complete work on four of the 13 spending bills that must be passed to operate the federal government in the fiscal ear that began Oct. 1. Most conspicuous among them is a $350 billion measure for labor, health and education programs that contains many of the educational priorities of the outgoing administration.

    Republican congressional leaders and the White House were close to reaching agreement before the Nov. 7 election but were sidetracked by peripheral issues. Those included GOP opposition to new workplace safety regulations and Democratic efforts to make it easier for some illegal immigrants to win permanent-resident status.

    Republicans are still pressing for passage of a package of tax breaks targeted at small business, community renewal and 401(k) and IRA retirement investments. The package faces an uncertain future even though it contains a $1 increase in the hourly minimum wage sought by Democrats.

    Senate Republicans also want another shot at a long-stalled bill that would make it more difficult for people to sweep away credit card debt in bankruptcy court.

    GOP leaders planned to hold a strategy meeting Monday.

    The eight Democrats — including first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. — and two Republicans elected to their first Senate terms last month will begin orientation sessions Tuesday.

    The same day, House GOP leaders will listen to members hoping to become chairman of committees and subcommittees. Republicans imposed a six-year term limit on those positions when they won control of the House in 1994, leading to a scramble this year for leadership of Banking, Armed Services, International Relations, Ways and Means and other major panels.

    One of the few new pieces of legislation that could make it to the House floor in the lame-duck session is an election-related bill making military absentee ballots valid even if they lack postmarks or have other technical problems.

    The measure, offered by Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., is an outgrowth of the dispute in Florida over the disqualification of some votes mailed by troops serving overseas.