Congress returns from recess with full plate

Posted 9:43 September 11

by Ilana Weinberg
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

Congress returned last week from its summer recess to address a number of issues facing the nation this fall.

Chief among these include the growing struggle over Iraq, pressure to pass the Medicare prescription drug bill, school vouchers, and the effects of the summer blackouts.

President Bush prepared Congress for a request for $87 billion to cover postwar Iraq in his address to the nation Sunday.

“The request will cover ongoing military and intelligence operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This budget request will also support our commitment to helping the Iraqi and Afghan people rebuild their nations,” said the President.

Congressional leaders say this is double the amount that was expected, following a $79 billion wartime budget supplement for Iraq and Afghanistan that President Bush signed this past April. Congressional hearings have begun on the status of the Iraqi conflict and the future direction of U.S. policy in that area.

Iraq is just the first of many concerns that Congress now faces.

“Congress has a number of must pass items on its plate, most importantly passage of the 13 federal government spending bills for the coming fiscal year that starts in October,” says Sarah Binder, Associate Professor of Political Science at The George Washington University.

The House has already approved eleven of the bills, but the Senate still has nine remaining. Issues to be addressed include education funding, private school vouchers in the District of Columbia, and changes in federal overtime pay policies.

Education has taken a prominent place on the agenda, as the House of Representatives narrowly approved the nation’s first federally funded school voucher plan this week. The plan includes a five-year pilot program for 1,300 children in the District of Columbia to save the city’s failing public education system.

“There are profound disagreements about whether vouchers would help or hurt students in public schools,” said Professor Carl Wilcox of the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

This largely Republican supported legislation passed on a closely party divided vote of 209 to 208. The D.C. provision is the only remaining legislation of a five-city, $75 million education choice initiative launched by President Bush last winter. The Senate is scheduled to vote on similar legislation as early as next week.

The White House is also putting pressure on Congress to act quickly on the legislation for Medicare prescription drug benefits for senior citizens. Both chambers passed bills for prescription drug coverage that will cost $400 billion over the next ten years. However, the two bodies must iron out the many discrepancies between the two separate bills before the legislation can be signed into effect.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee began hearings on the blackouts last Thursday with testimony from Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who promised a focused investigation on the cause of the power loss. Some Democrats fear that Republicans are trying to use the blackout to drive a broader, more controversial energy bill, which could include drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge.

Members of the House Committee are not yet commenting on the possible cause of the blackout, but committee chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., promised to address the changes in the nation’s power grid as a part of the energy bill before Thanksgiving. The total cost of the blackout, which swept from Canada through New York, was estimated at $6 billion, and economic advisors warn that this is still a low estimate.

Although still a controversial topic, both the House and Senate have passed bills to ban “partial birth” abortions before the recess. Congressional leaders expect follow up legislation to take place this fall.

The increasing politicization of these issues will continue as the presidential election approaches. It is unlikely that many of them will be resolved by Congress in the near future.

“These issues will continue on the agenda of whoever wins the presidency,” said Professor Wilcox.

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