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End Of The Road For GOP-Led Congress

In its last hours of Republican control, the U.S. Congress passed a raft of legislation big and small, most significantly a sweeping bill reviving expired tax breaks, extending trade benefits for developing countries and protecting doctors from a big cut in health insurance payments.

The Senate cleared the bill for President George W. Bush's signature early Saturday by a 79-9 vote. Final adjournment followed after the House and Senate cleared away a bevy of other legislation, including bills reauthorizing health research programs at the National Institutes of Health and an overhaul of fisheries management.

Speaker Dennis Hastert gaveled the House of Representatives to a close for the last time about 3:15 a.m.; the Senate limped to a close about 4:40 a.m.

Republicans dumped an unfinished budget on the Democrats about to take power, with the Senate barely meeting a midnight deadline to pass a stopgap spending bill putting the government on autopilot until Feb. 15.

The failure to pass budget bills for domestic agencies amounted to "a blatant admission of abject failure by the most useless Congress in modern times," said Democratic congressman David Obey.

The House easily passed the tax and health care provisions — along with a plan to open 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling. It passed the trade legislation by a narrower vote.

The legislation was then bundled and sent to the Senate for a single vote, where its popularity easily vanquished a handful of Republican opponents, although budget hawks bridled at the measure's cost and textile-state senators objected to trade provisions benefiting Haiti.

Also driving the massive bill forward was an effort to prevent a 5 percent cut in under the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly.

On the rest of the budget, work remained unfinished on nine of 11 spending bills, requiring the stopgap funding bill to put 13 Cabinet departments on autopilot through Feb. 15 frozen at or slightly below current levels.

Democrats now face difficult choices and weeks of work on the leftover budget, which totals $463 billion and must be passed at Bush's strict budget limits.

"They are leaving us with a tremendous mess," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told reporters. "We have alternatives, none of which are very good."

Democrats made good on a promise to block an automatic congressional pay raise until the minimum wage is increased.

The House of Representatives also approved, 330-59, an agreement to allow U.S. shipments of civilian nuclear fuel to India, an administration priority that is opposed by some because India, which has nuclear weapons, has not submitted to full international inspections. The Senate quickly cleared the bill for Bush's signature.

The trade measure establishes permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam, which is generally supported, with the extension of trade benefits for sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti and Andean nations. The Haiti provisions in particular raised red flags with lawmakers trying to protect home-state textile industries.

Eight Republican senators from North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Kentucky on Thursday wrote to congressional leaders saying 100,000 textile jobs in their region had already been lost due to trade agreements and they would oppose "as forcefully as possible" the Haiti measure. But of the eight, only two followed through on threats to oppose the Haiti trade preference after it was added to the broader bill.

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