WASHINGTON – The last days of Republican congressional rule are shaping up to be symbolic and brief, with GOP leaders hawking an abortion restriction with no chance of becoming law, loading up tax breaks with unrelated matters and dumping an unfinished budget on Democrats.
"It's appropriate that the do-nothing Congress is ending by doing nothing," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the next House majority leader.
That's not exactly true. Congress on Tuesday sent President Bush legislation to spend $38 million to preserve the notorious internment camps where the government kept Japanese-Americans behind barbed wire during World War II — a stark reminder of how the United States turned on some of its citizens in a time of fear.
And the Senate passed a bill to improve the government's preparedness and performance standards in the event of a pandemic or biological attack.
Meanwhile, House and Senate negotiators were working out final details on a package of tax breaks, many which expired at the beginning of the year, aimed at helping middle class taxpayers and businesses.
But Republicans about to lose their thrones are doing nothing not blessed by President Bush before the 109th Congress shuts down after a final, four-day work week.
Late Tuesday, Republicans killed a $4.8 billion drought relief package under threat of a presidential veto. They are punting nine unfinished spending bills until next year, forcing newly minted Democrats to untangle next year's federal budget.
And the House postponed a showdown vote on opening 8 million more acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, worried about achieving the two-thirds supermajority needed to pass the measure under special rules.
But those same rules did not hold House GOP leaders back from setting a vote Wednesday on a bill to limit fetal pain during late-term abortions, a measure GOP leaders shied away from offering before the November midterm elections and which stands no chance of passing the Senate even under GOP control.
Proponents, however, said bringing it up has educational and symbolic value. Sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the bill would require abortion providers to tell women seeking abortions after 20 weeks of gestation that such a process will cause the fetus pain, a statement that some scientists dispute. The woman would then be required to either accept or reject fetal anesthesia in writing.
Bringing up the bill is a final jab at Democrats who have professed to favor informed consent laws, according to the measure's sponsors. Smith also said its very floor debate, short though it would be under special rules, has educational value to anyone who might hear it.
And Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a possible presidential contender, has said he would try to bring it up in the Senate this week if the measure gets the required two-thirds majority House rules require.
Since any senator can halt legislation, any such move by Brownback would be almost guaranteed to be blocked by abortion rights senators.
Still, Smith's bill isn't as controversial as it sounds. NARAL-Pro Choice America, an abortion rights group, doesn't oppose it. And House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was not planning a floor speech on the bill.
In other congressional action:
— House and Senate negotiators were working out final details on a package of tax breaks, many which expired at the beginning of the year, aimed at helping middle class taxpayers and businesses.
The provisions include deductions for research and development initiatives and for higher education costs. There are also tax breaks for teachers who personally buy classroom supplies and state and local sales tax deductions for taxpayers in states with no state income tax.
The tax measure enjoys wide bipartisan support, a reason that lawmakers were considering combining it with other more difficult bills. Among the additions could be the bill to expand offshore oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, trade benefits for developing countries and a bill to prevent cuts in Medicare payments to physicians.
— The House was poised to pass a temporary spending bill for 13 Cabinet departments whose budgets are long overdue. The measure will keep domestic agencies on autopilot at or just below current levels through Feb. 15.
The action would kick decisions on more than $460 billion in unfinished budget business to incoming Democratic leaders, subtracting from the new majority's time for their own agenda.
It's likely that Democrats will jam all of the unfinished budget work into a mammoth "omnibus" spending bill.
Republicans "forfeit any right to complain about any action that we are forced to take on appropriations bills next year to clean up their chaotic mess," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.