WASHINGTON – Congressional negotiators Thursday were closing in on a deal on a massive tax and trade package that is the main obstacle to bringing the 109th session of Congress to an end.
Senate aides said they had reached tentative agreement on the legislation, which would extend tax breaks affecting millions of taxpayers, normalize trade with Vietnam and save doctors from an impending cut in Medicare payments.
"Things are nearly finalized, awaiting member confirmation," said Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
With approval of the package, Congress would be set to end the lame duck session and make way for the new Democratic-controlled Congress in January.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., said the goal was to bring the bill to the floor on Thursday. "I'm trying to make it happen."
But Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said it was typical that Republicans were rushing a huge bill to the floor that lawmakers would not have time to read or amend. "This is a sad but fitting way to end the 109th Congress," he said.
Congress is trying to deal with two major issues:
—It must approve the continued funding of federal programs at fiscal 2006 levels because this Congress failed, with the exception of defense and homeland security bills, to agree on any annual spending bills for the 2007 fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
The GOP plan is to stretch current funding amounts until Feb. 15, leaving it for the new Democratic leaders to deal with tough spending and deficit issues.
—It must address a package of tax breaks, many of which expired at the beginning of 2006. Included are an extension of college tuition deductions, costing $3.3 billion over two years; an option for taxpayers in states without income taxes to deduct state and local sales taxes, costing $5.5 billion; a research and development tax credit, costing $16.5 billion, and a deduction for teachers who spend their own money for classroom supplies, costing $379 million.
The tax breaks are supported by both parties, but efforts to extend them have been thwarted by moves to link them to other, more controversial, bills.
The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday introduced a multifaceted, 500-page bill that included the tax breaks, myriad trade measures including the Vietnam bill, and various health measures, among them promoting greater access to health care in rural areas and blocking a planned Medicare cut in payments to physicians, at a cost of $10 billion for a year.
The bill also encompasses a stalled plan to open more than 8 million acres along the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling and expand an abandoned coal mine reclamation program, estimated to cost up to $5 billion over 10 years.
"These are solid proposals on tax cuts, trade provisions and the health care Americans need," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.
But House and Senate negotiators were at odds over how to pay for many of the health items and how to craft the trade measures so they don't drive a crucial number of lawmakers into opposing the package.
The Vietnam bill would end the Cold War requirement that trade with the communist state be reviewed every year. While supported by the Bush administration, it has met opposition from critics of Vietnam's human rights record and those worried about the effect on American jobs.
The trade package also would extend or expand trade breaks for Haiti, sub-Saharan Africa and Andean nations, again drawing opposition from supporters of the beleaguered U.S. textile industry.
Also still on the agenda was congressional approval of an agreement with India that would allow the United States to ship civilian nuclear fuel and technology to that country.
The Senate also scheduled a vote Thursday on confirming Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach to head the Food and Drug Administration.
The Senate on Wednesday did accomplish one end-of-session objective, voting 95-2 to confirm Robert Gates as defense secretary to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld.
In the House, GOP leaders gave its anti-abortion base one final shot at abortion legislation before Democrats take over control of the agenda.
The House rejected a proposal that would have required abortion providers to inform women at least 20 weeks pregnant that abortions cause pain to the fetus. The vote was 250-162, short of the two-thirds majority needed under a procedure that limited debate.
The bill defined a 20-week-old fetus as a "pain-capable unborn child." That's a controversial threshold among scientists, who don't agree on whether a fetus at that stage of development feels pain or reflectively draws back from stimuli.