WASHINGTON – A well-rested Congress returns to work Monday to discuss school accountability and tax cuts, issues at heart of the Bush administration's agenda.
By midweek, the Senate is to take up a major education bill in line with the president's plan to improve the performance of both the nation's students and the public schools they attend.
House and Senate negotiators also sit down this week to grapple with differences in their approach to the budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
The House voted for a budget that endorsed Bush's 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut. The Senate, in its final act before the two-week Easter break, approved a package that included more spending than the president wants and a $1.2 trillion tax break.
A vote on a compromise could come by the end of the week.
In what is expected to be a busy five weeks before Memorial Day, Republican leaders hope to send a tax cut package to the president and come up with a long-term energy plan.
The Senate is likely to vote on legislation to raise the minimum wage while giving small businesses some tax relief. Democrats also are pressing on such issues as campaign finance legislation, prescription drug benefits for seniors and patient rights for those in HMO programs.
These activities follow the fairly cautious approach taken so far by Republican leaders who finally have a soul mate in the White House but also must deal with a Democratic force of nearly equal strength.
Congress this year has passed two major bills. One makes it tougher to declare bankruptcy, the other overturns Clinton administration ergonomic rules aimed at reducing workplace injuries.
The House has passed the main parts of the Bush tax plan while the Senate, in a victory for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., approved limits on campaign contributions.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said Congress in the first 75 days of the Bush administration has been "less sensational" but more productive than the Clinton administration in its opening days.
Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, head of the House Democratic Caucus, said Republicans were "determined to taken an unrealistic approach," charging ahead with tax cuts before they know how much the country needs for other priorities, and before dealing with urgent matters such as prescription drug benefits.
After weeks of negotiations with Democrats, Senate Republicans hope to pass an education bill that will largely reflect Bush's goals of holding schools more accountable, requiring annual testing to measure student performance and providing other options to students attending failing schools.
A tentative compromise was reached before the recess on the contentious issue of vouchers, under which students at substandard schools could get funds for after school tutoring or to transfer to another public school but would not, as proposed by Bush, allow public funds to be used for private school tuition.
But the opening of debate on the bill was put off until at least Wednesday because of remaining differences over funds. Democrats say the Bush budget proposal, while increasing education spending, does not go far enough to meet the costs of hiring more teachers and building or repairing schools.
The House this week takes up two bills that are favorites of social and fiscal conservatives but have had little success in past congresses. A measure that makes it a crime to harm a fetus during a violent act against a pregnant woman is the first showdown this year on the abortion issue. The bill passed the House during the last Congress but stalled in the Senate.
On Thursday the House is to take up a proposed amendment to the Constitution requiring Congress to have a two-thirds majority for tax increases. The same proposal failed last year, with supporters falling some 50 votes short.
Off the floor, the tax-writing committees of both chambers, Ways and Means in the House and Finance in the Senate, will be crafting tax cut legislation, possibly at cross-purposes.
The House has already passed tax cuts totaling more than $1.5 trillion, and Ways and Means is considering further cuts. "We might go beyond $1.6 trillion," said Terry Holt, spokesman for Armey. "We never considered $1.6 trillion a tripwire beyond which we cannot go."
The Senate Finance Committee has set a May 18 deadline for coming up with its tax package, which is likely to reflect pressures from Republican and Democratic moderates to reach a figure closer to the $1.2 trillion in the Senate budget resolution.