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Long 'To-Do' List For Congress

In a session so far marked by inaction, Congress has given itself a full plate of vote-getting issues to tackle leading up to the November election.

Among the bills being considered are a patients' bill of rights targeting unpopular HMOs, a federal lemon law bill, and a victim's rights bill that would recommend stricter sentences for convicted murderers and rapists.

Republicans are playing to conservative activists by sponsoring an abortion bill that would restrict abortions for underage girls. Also playing to their far-right constituency, Republicans have brought back to the fore the controversy surrounding Janet Reno's decision not to appoint an independent counsel to look into alleged campaign-finance abuses in the White House. Republicans grilled Reno for four hours Wednesday.

It's an agenda custom-made for an election year. There's enough division in the House and Senate to ensure little, if anything, will actually be accomplished. But, because of the upcoming election, there is a glimmer of hope that Congress will take action on these issues.

In a year when Congress did little, legislators are looking for something to show voters.

Patients' Bill Of Rights
Republicans introduced their plan for a patients' bill of rights Wednesday. That measure would give patients the right to appeal if a health plan denies coverage. But it provides no mechanism for enforcement.

By contrast, Democrats not only want government oversight; they also want patients to be able to sue.

Federal Lemon Law
There is sharp opposition to a lemon law bill aimed at protecting consumers from unknowingly buying cars that have been salvaged after major accidents or natural disasters like flood.

Consumer groups and 38 state attorneys general accuse Congress of supporting legislation that would actually exempt most used cars from the proposed rules, a potential boon to auto dealers and insurers.

A bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., would require states to put a designation on the titles of vehicles that have been salvaged. Similar to the measure passed by the House, it also would require placement of a decal on the vehicles and outlaw false statements about a vehicle's history.

But the measure does not apply to all vehicles. Damaged cars would have to be less than seven years old to qualify for a "salvage label." Cars older than that would need to be worth more than $7,500 to get branded. The vehicles then would have to have been declared "totaled" by an insurance company or undergone repairs worth more than 80 percent of their value before being damaged.

No Second Chances
Arizona Republican Congressman Matt Salmon is sponsoring the "no second chances" bill. He says some crimes are so heinous that those who commit them should not have a second chance.

The bill would change federal sentecing guidelines to recommend the death penalty or life in prison without parole for convicted murderers, and life for child molesters or rapists.

Abortion Bill
Democratic critics are calling a Republican bill aimed at restricting abortions by underage girls an attempt at election-year politicking.

"Four months away from an election, this bill is designed to strike contrasts between two sides rather than enact good legislation," charged Rep. Thomas Allen, D-Maine.

The Senate Judiciary Committee was expected to vote on the bill Thursday.

The bill would make it a federal misdemeanor for someone other than a parent or legal guardian to circumvent parental consent or notification laws in the girl's home state by taking her for an abortion to a state that imposes no restrictions minors seeking the procedure.