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US Congress Faces Lame Duck Session in November - 2004-10-14

Although Congress is now officially adjourned, lawmakers will return to Washington next month after the presidential and congressional elections, for what is called a lame duck session, required to complete various pieces of legislation. The final days of the 108th Congress were marked by a continuation of partisan disputes seen so often over the past two years.

On a clear, sunny but windy day in early October, journalists arriving for a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol were greeted not only by opposition Democrats in the House of Representatives, but also by a duck.

The feathered guest, walking with a crutch, was not actually a duck but a person dressed in a bird's costume, and was introduced by the number two Democratic lawmaker in the House, Steny Hoyer.

"Let me introduce Mr. delay me duck, who is here today because this Republican Congress is ducking its responsibilities," Mr. Hoyer said.

The humorous political stunt has been used over the years by both major political parties to underscore dissatisfaction with the way the party in the majority at the time has managed two-year-long legislative sessions.

For Democrats, whose hopes for regaining control of the House and Senate depend on how Americans vote in the November 2 election, Republican management of the 108th Congress which spanned 2003 and 2004 has been nothing short of disastrous.

In the last days of business, the House of Representatives and the Senate acted on a major corporate tax bill, and approved intelligence reform legislation.

The House also took up, but failed to pass, a highly controversial bill to amend the U.S. Constitution to effectively ban gay (homosexual) marriage.

However, in the waning days of the session, lawmakers also voted on numerous bills, notably covering the naming of post offices around the country, that regardless of how congressional responsibilities are viewed, could be seen as a waste of time given more important work crying out for action.

Illinois Democrat Rahm Emanuel had this to say. "We named 92 post offices, almost one every day that we have been in session, a record number for this Congress, an accomplishments," he said. "Eleven post offices are actually awaiting a final vote, so we can hit a historic high. We have named 22 federal buildings, a record number for a Congress. We introduced 35 resolutions creating new postage stamps, passed 34 resolutions honoring athletic teams."

This "tongue in cheek" criticism should not be taken to imply that Republicans alone are the ones who bring up bills covering such symbolic measures. Post offices are also approved in times of Democratic control of the House.

Yet, allegations that Republicans have presided over what Democrats describe as a do nothing Congress have had an impact on the majority's ability to depict the legislative session as fully successful.

On what many view as the most important piece of legislation in the 108th Congress, intelligence reform, Republican House leaders hit back, accusing Democrats of being obstructionists.

At a news conference just before passage of a Republican-crafted bill to implement recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that investigated lapses leading to the September 2001 terrorist attacks, House Republican Conference Chairwoman, Deborah Pryce, implied Democrats favored what she called a toothless intelligence reform bill.

"This Congress can do better, the families who are with us today know that we can do better," she said. "They have encouraged us to do better. There are no cutting corners when it comes to protecting America from another 9/11. We understand that. Some of our opponents don't believe it can be done, that such reforms can wait, but we disagree wholeheartedly."

Republicans also count among their accomplishments passage of bills to reform Medicare, extend Bush administration tax cuts, fund a $15 billion program to fight AIDS around the world, and help defend against possible future chemical or biological terrorist attacks.

However, as Democrats went to great lengths to point out, the House under Republican control met for 102 days in 2004, the lightest workload since 1948.

Though the House had a better record than the Republican-controlled Senate, Congress as a whole failed to approve a number of major spending bills required to keep government operations going, while failing to complete politically-sensitive bills on energy and transportation.

House minority whip Steny Hoyer asserts the scheduled post-election lame duck session will make it easier for Republicans to avoid taking responsibility for legislative work left undone.

"We're making light of the fact that they [Republicans] have this lame duck session that they're about to enter on after the election," he added. "And after the election of course they will not be held, they hope, accountable for their failures or for the policies that they passed."

At present, the full House and Senate are not due back for their lame duck session until November 16, two weeks after the November 2 presidential election.

However, lawmakers are under pressure to send President Bush a final intelligence reform bill before the election. House-Senate negotiations to resolve differences in bills approved by both chambers, are expected to begin next week involving a small group of lawmakers.