Congress Leaves Year-End Work to Do

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The year is almost over. Unexpectedly, the work in the Republican-controlled Congress is not.

Without action by day's end, for example, a $29 billion Senate-passed package of aid for Hurricane Katrina and other storms could perish. So, too, $3 billion for low-income heating assistance.

Ditto the six-month extension of the existing USA Patriot Act that Senate Republicans accepted on Wednesday — after long insisting they would approve nothing less than a permanent renewal that made changes in the current anti-terrorism law.

And legislation to cut federal deficits by nearly $40 billion faces a contentious revote in the House, most likely in 2006, after Senate Democrats maneuvered successfully to make last-minute changes.

The bill is "contrary to the spirit of this holiday season and contrary to the values of this nation," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said after the deficit-cutting measure cleared the Senate, 51-50, on the strength of Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., invoked holiday spirit from the positive side in his reply, noting that the bill provides funds for medical aid for Katrina victims and help for dairy farmers, doctors who treat Medicare patients and providers of kidney dialysis.

"I don't think any of us wants to see a situation where some of our neediest Americans are denied care and help because of politics," he said, urging Pelosi to let the measure go to Bush's desk without further debate.

Other bills left unfinished are less likely to provoke as much controversy.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he expects the House to approve the Katrina money and aid for low-income heating assistance at a brief afternoon meeting.

Frist said he had not discussed the Patriot Act extension with Hastert or other House leaders. But President Bush made clear he wants that bill on his desk before the existing measure expires on Dec. 31.

House Democrats signaled that they will not stand in the way of either the defense spending bill or a short-term extension of the Patriot Act.

The plateful of legislation was left over from a day in which majority Republicans lost their battle to open the Artic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, signed onto the temporary Patriot Act extension they had long rejected and salvaged the deficit-cutting bill.

"The vice president votes in the affirmative," Cheney said from his seat on the Senate dais, allowing Republicans to prevail over unified Democratic opposition and the defections of five GOP rebels.

The measure has been near the top of the GOP agenda all year, and conservatives said repeatedly it marked the first attempt to curtail the growth of federal benefit programs in nearly a decade. The measure sought savings from Medicaid, Medicare and student loans, imposed new fees on some companies to help shore up the government's pension insurance program, and envisions billions in government receipts from the sale of a portion of the analog spectrum.

Short on votes to defeat the measure, Democrats settled for impeding its progress. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., engineered approval of minor changes that had little or no impact on the anticipated savings, but required the measure to return to the House for final approval.

An hour after that bill cleared the Senate, Democrats scored a clean kill, defeating a provision that would have opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Supporters called it essential to the nation's security, but Democrats said its passage would do little to reduce dependence on foreign oil, and criticized Republicans for attaching it to a politically sacrosanct bill providing funds for the troops in Iraq.

"This has been the saddest day of my life," lamented Sen. Ted Stevens, the 82-year-old Alaska Republican who has crusaded to open the wildlife refuge for oil exploration for a quarter century.

With the oil drilling banned, lawmakers quickly agreed to pass the remainder of the legislation — $453 billion in defense funds, as well as money for Katrina victims, heating assistance and preparation for an outbreak of avian flu.

Two major bills cleared Congress during the day for Bush's signature.

One provides funds for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. Democrats, favoring more spending, let it pass reluctantly. Officials said they feared a prolonged dispute would lead to even less money.

The other includes a ban on the cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of foreign prisoners in the war on terror. Bush and Cheney lobbied strenuously for weeks for an exemption for the CIA. But the president ultimately bowed to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and agreed last week to sign the measure.