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Congress: The New Season

Congress returns from its month-long recess Tuesday for what promises to be an eventful and contentious September on Capitol Hill.

"Congress has an incredibly heavy agenda," Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute told And it's an agenda that will feature a number of intense battles – both within the House and Senate, and between Congress and the White House.

Most of the fights during the remainder of the session will be over the 13 spending bills for fiscal year 2002. "Those are what will create the most heartburn," Ornstein said, mainly because of the recent projections from the Congressional Budget Office that show a rapidly shrinking surplus.

"There's suddenly a shortage of money," said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. Politicians, he continued, "thought they could solve most of their problems by letting everybody have what they wanted. Well, it ain't so."

Because of the lower CBO estimates, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., warns, "It is going to be a very difficult fall period for the Congress and the administration."

With several appropriations bills yet to pass, Democrats have already begun questioning how President Bush will pay for his priorities such as increased defense and education spending.

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"Although you continue to advance these proposals, your administration has failed to put forward any plan to reconcile their costs with the rapidly dwindling surplus," House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, House Budget Committee Ranking Democrat John Spratt and Sen. Conrad wrote in a letter to Mr. Bush last week.

The president, however, says Democrats' complaints are just politics as usual.

"This year, we might even see our administration's two highest priorities - education and national defense - being played off against each other," Mr. Bush said Thursday. "That's the old way of doing business, and it's time to stop it."

But top Democrats, like Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, wonder how the president expects to pay for everything he's requested.

"George Bush says, you know, we need more money for education and military. That's great. Where's the money going to come from?" said McAuliffe on CBS News' "Face the Nation."

That's the question that sets the stage for Congress' return after Labor day. Here's a look at some of the issues expected to dominate the fall season:

  • Defense: Mr. Bush has asked for an extra $18 billion for defense, bringing the total increase over last year to $33 billion – he biggest proposed increase since the fall of the Soviet Union. The request includes $8 billion in funding for the controversial national missile defense system.

    Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended the budget request, saying, "We need every nickel and we will be working to get it. ... the need is so serious and so real and the president's commitment is clear."

    Last week, Mr. Bush told the American Legion convention in Texas: "Near the end of the process, suddenly we hear that Congress is about to go over the budget, so the items that have been saved for last are the ones most likely to get cut. And guess what usually has been saved for the last? The defense bill – leaving our national security at the mercy of budget games and last-minute cuts."

    Democrats have promised to fight the size of the defense increase. Sen. Conrad said recently that Mr. Bush's request is in "serious trouble."

  • Education: "I hope they don't play politics with the education bill. They need to get it to my desk quickly so I can sign it and reform the public schools all across America," Mr. Bush said last week.

    It isn't going to be that easy, however.

    While both the House and Senate versions of the education bill call for annual testing of students and provide more money for the worst schools, the biggest hangup between the two is money. The House version increases spending by about $4.5 billion; the Senate version boosts it by $14 billion.

    Ornstein points out that Senate Democrats are planning to hold off work on the defense and education bills until the last minute, hoping to force Mr. Bush into a political dilemma.

    "The Democrats will bring it down to a confrontation over two things," Ornstein said. He predicts Democratic leaders will wind up saying, "If you want education, take it out of defense. If you want defense, take it out of education."

  • Energy: Right before the summer recess, the House passed an energy bill that would increase American energy production and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. It also included $35 billion in tax breaks for the energy industry as an incentive to promote increased exploration.

    But Senate Democrats have vowed to fight the bill. They're expected to push for more conservation measures, chip away at the tax breaks and battle a provision involving oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

    "I would hope we could agree to disagree, take [the drilling provision] out so we don't jeopardize the entire energy legislation," Senate Majority Leader Daschle said on CBS News' Face the Nation in July.

  • Campaign Finance Reform: A campaign finance reform bill, offered in the House by Reps. Chris Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., died in July after GOP leaders attached rules that the bill's supporters felt would have eliminated any chance of passage.

    Shays and Meehan are currently circulating discharge petition, attempting to get enough signatures (218) to force a vote on the issue. According to Shays' office, 205 members have signed the petition: 189 Democrats, 1 independent and 15 Republicans.

    The chances are pretty high, Ornstein believes, that Shays and Meehan will be able to scrounge up another 13 signers, setting up a floor vote.

  • Patients' Bill Of Rights: Both the House and Senate have already passed HMO reform measures that, on the surface, are similar but differ on several details that will have to be worked out before a bill reaches the president's desk.

    The version that passed the Senate in June includes broader provisions regarding patients' rights to sue and employers' liability.

    Both the House and Senate versions include patient protections such as access to emergency care and specialty care, as well as direct access to pediatricians and OB-GYNs.

These battles, from now until the Congress adjourns in October, will be "quite classic," the Brookings Institution's Hess points out.

"This leads directly into a mid-term election," he said. And the outcome of these fights will wind up revealing "whose philosophy of governing prevails."

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