Congress Moves Slowly as It Anticipates Election-Year Calendar

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Democrats bent on showing they can govern and Republicans anxious about a sour re-election climate are pushing a pared-down summer agenda in Congress.

Lawmakers want to try to save homeowners from foreclosure, avert Medicare cuts and give the government power to spy on suspected terrorists.

Gasoline prices have emerged as a chief concern among voters. But lawmakers probably will not put aside their partisan blame-fest and compromise on an energy measure that could offer some relief, either immediately or down the road.

The Senate planned to return Monday and the House on Tuesday. Their abbreviated election-year calendar leaves little time to cut deals. Lawmakers will scatter again in August for their annual monthlong break and the two parties' presidential conventions.

With their attention turning increasingly to re-election campaigns, not to mention the White House race, members of Congress will be away from Washington much of the fall.

"There just isn't much sand left in the top of the hourglass," said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution congressional scholar. "They've done whatever heavy lifting they're capable of doing."

In the time that remains, leaders intend to act on an array of politically appealing legislation. Examples include banning lead in toys and approving an ambitious global health initiative — a $50 billion program to combat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in Africa and elsewhere.

The annual measure renewing Pentagon programs could be completed, and a catchall spending measure to pay for government programs through year's end is a must-pass item.

The promise of a new president and prospects for a different Congress next year have sapped lawmakers' incentive to engage in major debates this year. Majority Democrats hoping to dominate both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009 have little reason to compromise on their priorities.

"Whose interest is it to settle anything now?" Hess said.

Still, leaders will try for votes on some issues provoking partisan tensions: energy measures; a second economic rescue bill; extending expiring tax cuts; saving tens of millions of people from a tax increase averaging $2,300 due to the alternative minimum tax.

The two parties have battled over gas prices for months. Democrats are pushing for more conservation and energy alternatives while Republicans favor more domestic energy production, including oil drilling on federal lands and waters now off-limits because of environmental concerns. More votes are expected in July.

Republicans have been hostile to Democrats' calls for a second economic relief measure on top of the one that sent rebates of $600 to $1,200 rebates to most wage earners this year. Congress and President Bush took a half-step in that direction last month, enacting a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits averaging $300 a week for up to 4 million jobless workers.

Tax legislation is ensnared in a dispute between Democrats who insist on pairing any extension of expiring tax cuts with tax increases elsewhere to prevent a rise in the deficit, and Republicans who oppose such increases. Action could wait until September.

The housing rescue is designed to help hundreds of thousands of homeowners buckling under subprime mortgage payments avoid foreclosure and get new, cheaper loans. This could be the last major compromise to be signed by Bush this year.

It has drawn broad support in the Senate, where test-votes show it has enough backing to override a veto. A procedural vote was expected Monday, and the measure is expected to pass the Senate as early as week's end.

First, though, lawmakers have to break a logjam over Republican Sen. John Ensign's bid to add $8 billion worth of renewable energy tax breaks. Then leaders have to resolve disputes among Democrats and with the White House about important details.

The measure includes a plan for the Federal Housing Administration to insure up to $300 billion in new, more affordable fixed-rate loans for borrowers otherwise considered too financially strapped to qualify. The proposal also would overhaul the FHA and tighten rules for government-sponsored mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

"I think we can get us a bill," Bush said recently. "But it's going to require less politics and more focus on keeping our minds on who we need to help, and that's the homeowner."

Democrats are divided on how high to place limits on the loans FHA can insure and those two companies can buy. The House proposed a roughly $730,000 cap and the Senate embraced a $625,000 ceiling.

Leaders are tussling with the White House over including at least $3.9 billion in grants for buying, fixing up and reselling foreclosed properties. This is an idea that Democrats say is critical to battling blight and Bush calls a government bailout for lenders who helped cause the housing crisis.

The terrorist surveillance legislation faces fewer obstacles. It is expected to win approval Tuesday for Bush's signature.

Next, Senate leaders plan to reprise a bill preventing a 10.6 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors. It passed the House overwhelmingly in defiance of Bush's threat to veto it, but fell just one vote short of the 60 it needed to advance in the Senate.

Bush and Senate Republicans do not like offsetting cuts to insurance companies that use Medicare money to offer private health care coverage to about 20 percent of older people. The lower fees to doctors went into effect Tuesday. Medicare officials are holding off processing new claims, hoping Congress will act within the next couple of weeks to restore the higher payments.