Congress' To-Do List: Terrorism, Torture, Tax Cuts

Terrorism, torture and modest tax cuts to help rebuild the Gulf Coast dot the agenda for the Republican-controlled Congress at the end of a year scarred by scandal. GOP leaders are working to salvage as much as possible from a conservative blueprint drafted in more favorable political times.

Long gone is an overhaul of Social Security, which flopped within weeks of President Bush's nationally televised summons to action last winter. An ambitious plan to pare $35 billion or more from the growth of food stamps, health care for the poor and other federal benefit programs may slip to next year in the face of solid Democratic opposition.

Legislation to open a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling faces delay, if not death, at the hands of critics in both parties. "It is still a sticking point," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told reporters Tuesday.

There are others.

Rep. Roy Blunt, the acting House majority leader, strongly suggested the leadership on his side of the Capitol felt no urgency to rush a year-end series of bills to Bush's desk.

He noted that lawmakers are merely at the midpoint of a two-year term, and said he'd rather defer action on key measures such as the deficit-cutting bill if the alternative meant "we'd have to give up our negotiating position on a number of issues" when it comes to the Senate. "I think it's better to get that right than to get that quickly," he said.

Frist said his top pre-adjournment priorities include renewal of the Patriot Act, which he called a "very good, very strong bill." The measure was first passed in 2001 to strengthen the hand of law enforcement agencies after the terrorist attacks. House passage of the extension seems likely Wednesday, but the measure faces a threatened filibuster by both conservative and liberal critics in the Senate.

The Tennessee Republican also said, "We will not leave here without a substantial ... tax package" to help rebuild the Gulf Coast region ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. The House and Senate passed separate but similar packages with about $7 billion in tax incentives and tax-exempt bonds targeted to the region.

But a second bill to cut taxes on capital gains and dividends, is unlikely to clear this year.

On another issue, Frist expressed confidence that "at the end of the day we will come to an agreement" on a proposal by Arizona Sen. John McCain to ban torture by U.S. personnel of any detainees held in the war on terror. The Bush administration has long lobbied for an exemption for the CIA, and negotiations on a compromise have been proceeding fitfully.

Frist predicted enactment of an annual spending measure for the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. Passage of a second spending bill, this one for the Pentagon, is complicated by unrelated issues. They include a call by House Republicans for across-the-board cuts to reduce federal budget deficits, and Senate proposals for additional spending on hurricane relief and flu pandemic preparation.

Democrats, who have become more feisty as Bush's poll ratings have slipped, offered only scorn for Republicans.

"It's a sad year we've been through," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second ranking Democrat in the House.

He scored Republicans for seeking "tax cuts for the wealthy while we cut programs, food stamps, Medicaid, child support ... student aid and other programs designed to help people."

He also said Republicans were responsible for such an ethical "stench that I think the American public will want to change come November of next year."

He listed Republicans either charged or convicted in recent months: former Rep. Randy Duke Cunningham of California, who resigned after admitting he accepted bribes worth $2.4 million; former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, battling money laundering charges in Texas; Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist with close ties to numerous Republicans, under federal investigation; Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay spokesman, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe public officials — a charge growing out of the Abramoff investigation.

If the outcome of the year-end legislative struggle was uncertain, so, too, was the timing. With senators still straggling back from a long Thanksgiving break, hopes of wrapping up the year's work by day's end Friday seemed unlikely.

And with so much unresolved, the outlines of a 2006 agenda were coming into view — the measure to trim benefit programs if it stalled short of the finish line this month; the tax bill to cut dividend and capital gains taxes. And immigration legislation, one of the last bills House leaders will schedule for a vote this year, and the first one expected up in the Senate next year.