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'Do-nothing' Congress limps out of Washington

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress rushed back into town last week to rename a post office in Oklahoma, approve a nonbinding resolution honoring the late economist Milton Friedman and vote on an anti-abortion bill that had no hope of becoming law.

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress rushed back into town last week to rename a post office in Oklahoma, approve a nonbinding resolution honoring the late economist Milton Friedman and vote on an anti-abortion bill that had no hope of becoming law.

It was an anti-climactic end to a lackluster two years. The House and Senate approved several tax and trade measures early Saturday, but what will be remembered about the 109th Congress is the major legislation it killed or delayed.

Exhibit A: the annual federal budget. Lawmakers limped out of town with only two of the 11 annual spending bills complete.

As for the other nine, the Republican-led Congress passed a series of stop-gap funding measures to keep the government from shutting down until next month, when a new Congress will convene and Democrats will take control.

In one of their last acts in the majority, Republican leaders forced through a broad tax and trade bill. The bill was packed with provisions that drew substantial bipartisan support after harsh opposition melted away when it became obvious the legislation was headed to the president, and lawmakers were ready to head home after a difficult year.

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"I recognize I am going to lose," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., in making a final, futile procedural attack against the measure, which was approved on a 79-9 vote just before2 a.m. The House had passed the provisions in two separate packages.

The trade measure, a compendium of last-minute priorities sent to President Bush, was the chief legislative accomplishment of the final hours. It restored $38 billion in popular tax breaks, established normal trade relations with Vietnam, granted trade benefits to Haiti and four South American countries, and blocked a cut in Medicare payments to doctors. The measure also fulfilled a long-sought objective of Gulf Coast lawmakers and the oil industry by expanding offshore drilling opportunities in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and directing hundreds of millions of dollars in new royalties to the region.

With the conclusion of the Congress, four years of full Republican control over the apparatus of Washington came to an end because of election gains that will install Democrats in the House and Senate majorities when Congress reconvenes on Jan. 4. The election also interrupted 12 straight years of Republican reign in the House, where the departing majority steamrolled Democrats for years.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called it a "do-nothing Congress," likening it to the Senate and House that drew the ire of then-President Truman and prompted him to coin the term.

"This was one of the least-productive sessions of Congress in our history," he said in an interview. "This Congress has done even less than the Congress of 1948."

Echoed Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo.: "There's so much to do and we're punting. It's irresponsible. There's no excuse for it."

The unfinished spending bills total more than $450 billion in annual funding for everything from agriculture to veterans programs. But they're hardly the only leftover legislative business that the next session of Congress will find on its plate when lawmakers return.

Yet the 109th Congress wasn't devoid of achievement.

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Lawmakers approved a bipartisan federal highway spending bill and legislation to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. They also renewed the Patriot Act and confirmed two new Supreme Court justices and a new defense secretary.

But the meager successes of this Congress matched the time put in on the job.

The typical congressional workweek lasted from Tuesday evening until Thursday afternoon. Democrats who will lead the House next year have already told lawmakers to expect to work five days a week.

This Congress took weeklong breaks for holidays such as St. Patrick's Day and Presidents' Day and vacationed for two weeks in mid-April, in addition to the customary August recess.

"The smallest number in our lifetime," said congressional historian Norman Ornstein, of the working days of the 109th Congress. "A pretty pathetic output."

As they plowed through legislation in the early morning, Congress also whisked through a package of three major health care initiatives that continued a program for HIV and AIDS that will provide more than $6 billion for care over three years, created an agency to centralize efforts against bioterrorism and restructured the National Institutes of Health.

"Tonight, Congress put partisanship aside to do the right thing for the health of millions of Americans," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who helped squeeze through the health legislation.

With approval by the House before it adjourned at 3:15 a.m., Congress also gave the first overhaul in years to fisheries laws, trying to limit overfishing of certain species.

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"By passing this bill, Congress has agreed that the threats facing our oceans are too great to wait another year," said Matt Rand of the National Environmental Trust.

Bush, who signed the stopgap spending legislation early Saturday, praised Congress for delivering the last batch of bills, singling out the oil-drilling, AIDS assistance and fisheries legislation, as well as the nuclear agreement with India and the elevated trade status for Vietnam.

But even as he complimented the old Congress, the president may have to brace for a different relationship with the new one.

In the Democratic radio address broadcast Saturday, Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, who will be the chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence in January, promised intense scrutiny of the president's policies regarding Iraq.

"I intend to focus on oversight, holding administration officials accountable to the American people," Reyes said. "Oversight need not be partisan, and under my leadership, it won't be. It will be bipartisan, focused and serious."

Lawmakers will return to a changed world in January, and they acknowledge it will take some getting used to.

"John McCain told me they don't know they've lost yet, and we don't know we've won," Kennedy said.

The New York Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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