WASHINGTON – The 107th Congress began fading into the history books Wednesday, its legacy including a colossal agency to gird the nation against terrorism, new curbs on corporate behavior and campaign spending, and deep tax cuts.
Even as they addressed some high-profile issues, lawmakers left others languishing. National energy policy, patients' rights, prescription drugs, tighter bankruptcy laws, drought aid for farmers and extra counterterrorism funds all fell victim to partisan stalemate.
Still other problems were largely ignored — reducing newly resurgent federal deficits and addressing the long-term solvency of Social Security and Medicare, for example. Both parties concluded there was no public clamor for the politically painful tax increases or benefit and spending cuts that would likely be needed.
Republicans ran the House during the 107th's two-year session, while Democrats controlled the Senate since June 2001. That lay the groundwork for gridlock — especially during the run-up to the Nov. 5 congressional elections. Each party blamed the other for obstruction, but leaders agreed more could have been accomplished.
"There's no use trying to fix blame, but the fact of the matter is a lot of important things that needed to be done were not done," Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Wednesday.
The Senate adjourned Wednesday. The House seemed likely to hold a final session Friday with a skeleton crew voicing approval of legislation, including a bill creating a Homeland Security Department.
It was the last Congress for 99-year old Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and Democrats let him end his record 47-year Senate career by gaveling the chamber into adjournment.
"It's over," he said after banging the gavel to a standing ovation from aides and a handful of colleagues.
Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, left less ceremoniously, expelled in July for taking bribes and kickbacks.
This Congress was born just weeks after George W. Bush won the disputed, prolonged 2000 election against Al Gore. Things grew only more tempestuous.
A robust economy grew feeble. Record federal surpluses faded into shortfalls. A country at peace was staggered by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And as lawmakers left Washington this week, the nation was poised for war with Iraq.
Terror hit lawmakers directly. The Capitol was evacuated the day Washington and New York were attacked. A month later, anthrax was found in letters mailed to the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. That forced shutdowns of the congressional office complex, disrupted lawmakers' work and produced a sense of vulnerability that still pervades on Capitol Hill.
"We're certainly in a different place because of 9/11," Daschle said Wednesday.
The response by lawmakers' to the terrorist attacks was perhaps their defining activity.
Within days, Congress churned out a $40 billion package for defense, counterterrorism and rebuilding New York and the Pentagon as partisan rifts were ignored. Lawmakers also approved the use of force by Bush against terrorists, new federal powers for spying and investigating terrorism at home, and billions in loans and grants for financially ailing airlines.
Even as partisan rancor increased this year, a fresh $28.9 billion anti-terror package was enacted, plus a record $355 billion defense measure, bills creating federal terrorism insurance and anti-bioterrorism programs, and a resolution backing military action by Bush against Iraq.
The homeland security agency was also established. But a budget fight between Bush and Congress — including some Republicans — left most spending bills unfinished, freezing in limbo tens of billions extra the president wanted for anti-terrorism, schools and his other priorities. Lawmakers will revisit those bills early next year.
The 107th began with Republicans narrowly controlling the House and Senate — the latter by Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 chamber. Even so, Bush was in command and by May Congress shipped him his top campaign priority: a $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut.
But the arm-twisting cost Vermont Sen. James Jeffords to bolt the GOP and tilt Senate control to Democrats. They will relinquish that in the new Congress, thanks to election losses this month.
As signs of economic stagnation grew, lawmakers last March approved a stimulus package of business tax cuts and extended unemployment benefits.
Cascading scandals involving Enron Corp. and other companies — and political sensitivities from the plummeting stock market and approaching election — produced a bill cracking down on business fraud by July. In August another was approved making it easier for the president to negotiate trade agreements.
Lawmakers enacted an overhaul of federal education programs that Bush had campaigned on; revamped campaign finance laws; produced aid for states to update election equipment; and approved a $190 billion, 10-year farm bill.
The Senate fought over Bush's judicial nominations all year long, eventually confirming 100 of the first 130 federal appeals court and district court nominees.