Friday, April 21, 2006

Lawmakers Plan Ambitious Agenda as Voter Anger Rises
Lawmakers Plan Ambitious Agenda as Voter Anger Rises
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer

Members of Congress will return to Washington next week to face deep challenges including a budget morass in the House and an immigration quagmire in the Senate, while new polls indicate that voters increasingly view the legislative branch as dysfunctional.

How well Republican leaders navigate their way through the legislative mess could greatly influence the outcome of the midterm elections in November, suggests a poll released yesterday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

"The American public is angry with Congress, and this is bad news for the Republican Party," the authors of the poll concluded.

With a backdrop of skepticism and discontent, Republican leaders have laid out an ambitious agenda for the coming months, from health-care legislation to the most sweeping immigration changes in a generation. But they will have just 72 legislative days to achieve it before the scheduled date of adjournment. And they will have to overcome divisions in their own ranks to secure even the basics, such as a budget.

The House left town on April 7, having failed to pass a budget blueprint for the coming fiscal year. Republican moderates said the House budget plan would spend too little, especially on health, education and workforce programs. House conservatives said the plan spent too much, and members of the Appropriations Committee objected to new budget rules that they said would tie their hands and diminish their authority.

The Senate headed for its spring break under circumstances that were no less acrimonious. Republicans charged Democrats with obstructionism on a major immigration bill, and conservatives accused Republican leaders of capitulation on the immigration issue.

Andrew Kohut, the Pew Center's director, said voters are beginning to focus on congressional activities, and they do not like what they see.

"We see people engaged about Washington and not in a positive way," he said. "To be honest, I was surprised by these numbers."

About 41 percent of those polled said Congress has accomplished less than usual, compared with 27 percent who said so just before the midterm elections in 2002 and 16 percent who believed that in 2000.

Fifty-six percent of those polled said they would consider which party controls Congress when they vote in November. Previous polls back to 1998 never cracked 50 percent on that question. And 53 percent said they do not want to see most lawmakers reelected this year. In 2002 and 2004, fewer than 40 percent responded that way.

On the positive side for Republicans, 57 percent of respondents say they would like to see their member of Congress reelected, but 28 percent do not -- a level of personal opposition not seen since October 1994, on the eve of the Republican congressional landslide.

House leaders are "determined to get a budget done," said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

But that is only one issue on a crowded plate, leadership aides cautioned. Next week's priorities will be reauthorizing the law that governs the nation's intelligence agencies and approving changes to rules governing lobbying and the funding of home-district pet projects, known as earmarks.

There should be action the first week of May on revamping telecommunication laws, and the next week will be given to the annual defense policy bill. Sometime in May, House leaders would like to act on energy legislation to ease voter concerns over soaring gasoline prices, and changes to the nation's emergency management system ahead of the hurricane season, which will begin June 1.

A bill to extend some expiring tax cuts from President Bush's first term could come up next month as well. House and Senate negotiators have been at an impasse over that measure since late last year.

In June, the House hopes to take up several health-care bills that would allow small businesses to pool together to buy health insurance, expand tax-free health savings accounts and improve the portability of health insurance from one employer to another.

"It's a robust agenda," said Kevin Madden, spokesman for House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "There are significant challenges that the House is focused on."

The Senate's plate appears equally full, but Senate leaders must contend with an increasingly partisan atmosphere that has dragged out even routine procedural motions. Amy Call, a spokeswoman for Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said Senate leaders intend to reconsider the immigration bill, but not immediately.

Next week will be devoted to a $106.5 billion emergency spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as ongoing Gulf Coast hurricane relief. The measure almost certainly will not be completed before the Senate moves on to its "health-care week," featuring legislation on small business health plans and limits on medical malpractice suits.

Frist would like to revisit the immigration bill, complete the emergency spending measure and take up the tax cut extensions in May, then move on in June to votes on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and a permanent repeal of the estate tax, Call said. He could also bring two controversial judicial nominations to the floor next month: U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit and White House aide Brett M. Kavanaugh to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

All of those plans could be thwarted by assertive Democrats hoping to pursue their own agenda, Call conceded. Republicans are even braced for Democrats to push for a vote of no confidence on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.