WASHINGTON – A Republican-led Congress criticized for producing little but political rancor is likely to end its term this week with at best a grade of "Incomplete."
The House and Senate return Tuesday having already decided to dump an unfinished budget on next year's Democratic-controlled Congress. Passing grades are problematic for a host of other issues on lawmakers' plates.
The main task this week will be approval of continued funding for most federal programs at fiscal 2006 levels through Feb. 15. That's necessary because the House and Senate have not come together on any of the new spending bills for the fiscal year that started in October except those covering defense and homeland security.
In other action this final week:
— The Senate is likely to move quickly to confirm former CIA Director Robert Gates as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's successor. The Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing with Gates on Tuesday.
— The House on Tuesday will vote on a Senate bill that would open 8.3 million acres in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to new oil and gas drilling. The bill's chances rose after House leaders last week abandoned the more ambitious House-passed bill, which would have ended drilling moratoriums along much of the nation's coast.
— Congress will also probably send the president a package of targeted tax breaks, most which expired at the beginning of the year. Those breaks include deductions for research and development, for higher education costs, for teachers' classroom expenses and for employers who hire people coming off welfare.
Efforts to move the popular tax package have been thwarted several times this year because of maneuvers to link it to more controversial legislation. This time, too, passage could be complicated by proposals to tie it to several pending bills, including one to stop a scheduled cut of Medicare payments to physicians and another to extend trade benefits for sub-Saharan Africa and other developing nations.
— Also possibly in the mix for an end-of-year combo package are an abandoned mine cleanup bill and a bill to permanently normalize trade relations with Vietnam.
The office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Monday it will take up the Vietnam bill if the House acts first. The House failed to pass the measure last month with a procedure requiring a two-thirds majority, and GOP House leaders have not announced plans for revisiting the issue.
Frist said Monday that House and Senate negotiators would meet to iron out a compromise on another major foreign policy initiative that would allow the United States to ship civilian nuclear fuel and technology to India.
Also on Frist's agenda is legislation to improve the nation's ability to react to bioterror attacks.
Frist had originally talked of keeping the Senate working right up to Christmas, but motivation to stay in Washington was deflated by the Republican losses of both the House and Senate in the election.
The House this week is scheduled to dispose of several dozen mostly minor bills including naming a Capitol room after retiring Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill.
The House is also to take up a bill requiring abortion providers to inform a woman 20 weeks into a pregnancy that the fetus may experience pain during an abortion. It's unlikely that the Senate would consider it this year.
Congress did approve significant measures this year, including a pension overhaul bill and the renewal of the Patriot Act. Other security-related measures sent to the White House included a port security bill and endorsement of President Bush's plans to create military commissions to prosecute terror suspects.
However, Congress was unable to come up with a plan creating a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, instead approving a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border. It couldn't pass a lobbying and ethics bill generated by lobbying scandals at the beginning of the year, and failed to reach a consensus on the administration's warrantless eavesdropping program.
By postponing action on the spending bills, Republicans will be leaving to the newly empowered Democrats the job of meeting the many demands for spending on health, education, veterans and transportation as well as doing something about the budget deficit.