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Congress Adjourns, Fails to Complete Important Legislation - 2002-10-19

Both houses of Congress have adjourned to prepare for the November 5 mid-term elections. Lawmakers tried but failed to finish important legislation, as Democrats and Republicans launched pre-election attacks on each other focusing primarily on the economy and homeland security.

In the best of worlds, before a mid-term election, lawmakers could leave town satisfied knowing they passed key pieces of legislation on domestic issues, foreign affairs, and the budget. But the nature of politics rarely makes this possible, and this year is no exception.

The intense debate over the resolution giving President Bush authorization to act militarily against Iraq consumed much of the time lawmakers hoped to use to finish important pieces of legislation before adjourning to campaign for elections.

Most House and Senate lawmakers have left Washington until after the November 5 elections. But failure to deal with unfinished business means they will have to return for a "lame duck" session on November 12.

Perhaps the most important item left unfinished was the bill to create a new department of homeland security.

The House passed its version nearly three months ago. But hopes for passage in the Senate were dashed by fierce partisan debate over the issue of labor rights for tens of thousands of employees to be integrated into the new agency.

Congress also failed to approve a government budget for the fiscal year that began October 1. That means most government agencies must operate on what is called a "continuing resolution" until November 22, that holds them to the previous year's spending levels. In total, Congress passed only two of 13 major spending bills.

Work was almost completed on another piece of legislation, a $100 billion bill to help companies deal with the cost of potential future terrorist attacks. But outstanding issues prevented final agreement before lawmakers left town.

Meanwhile, the battle for control of the House and Senate in advance of the November 5 election has begun in earnest.

Democrats are attempting to turn the nation's attention to the one issue they believe will help them most the economy. Independent representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who often votes with the Democratic Party and Maurice Hinchey of New York, a Democrat, accused Republicans of ignoring the economic downturn

Sanders: "Maybe we should be protecting elderly people who have lost their life savings in a declining stock market. Maybe we should be protecting the millions of American workers who have seen their jobs go to China and Mexico. Maybe we should be talking about the fact that our health care system is collapsing and insurance rates are going up. And many of us are sick and tired that the White House is not focusing on the issues."
Hinchey: "The administration is dealing not at all with the first [issue], not at all with the economic circumstances, not at all with the fact that unemployment is going up, incomes are going down, health care is declining, educational achievement is declining, they're dealing with none of that."

House and Senate Republicans responded by accusing Democrats of blocking key legislation and failing to come up with a workable alternative to President Bush's economic plans.

On the economy, Republicans say they are not worried the issue will weaken their position in the November 5 elections. To the contrary, they predict the Democratic strategy will fail and lead to a strengthening of the Republican hold on the House. Virginia Congressman Tom Davis is the Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee says "the Democratic game plan that they have been counting on from day one, that they announced in July, that play book [plan] is out the window. They're back to the same tired rhetoric that we hear year after year, the rhetoric that didn't win them back the House in 1996, or 1998, or 2000 and it's not going to work this year. Social security, prescription drugs, medicare the same old scare tactics. I think we're going to see history made again as Republicans actually have an opportunity to pick up seats in the House and hold the House for the fifth straight election cycle, first time since the 1920's."

Democrats dismiss suggestions their attempt to re-focus attention away from Iraq, back on the economy, has failed. They predict they will not only maintain control of the Senate, but re-gain control of the House.

Republicans, meanwhile, say it is not part of their "game plan" to use a potential U.S. led military strike against Iraq as an issue against Democratic candidates. But they don't rule out the possibility that votes by some Democrats against the Iraq resolution will be a factor in some races.

In the November 5 election, all 435 members of the House of Representatives are up for re-election, while in the Senate 34 of 100 seats are at stake.