Monday, November 13, 2006

Lawmakers gear up to fight some old battles

Lawmakers gear up to fight some old battles
By Donna Smith

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers geared up to fight old battles with President George W. Bush over domestic wiretapping and a contentious U.N. nominee, even as Bush pledged to cooperate with the new Democratic-led Congress that starts in January.

The current Republican-led Congress -- including lawmakers who lost their seats in Tuesday's elections -- returns this week to work through a pile of unfinished legislation on spending, taxes, trade and international affairs that could keep it here until the Christmas holidays.

Bush made clear he wants certain things done while Congress is in Republican hands, including legislation authorizing the administration's domestic warrantless wiretapping program and Senate confirmation of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

With the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- who became the face of the Iraq war that was a major cause of Republican election losses -- senators from both parties also said they will work quickly to consider Bush's choice of a replacement, former CIA director Robert Gates.

Lawmakers also will choose leaders for the next Congress, when Democrats take control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in 12 years.

All of this is in addition to unfinished budget work for the 2007 fiscal year that began on October 1 and other items already on Congress' agenda including a civil nuclear agreement with India and normalizing trade relations with Vietnam.

Democrats say Bush is asking too much.

"For a Republican Congress that has gone forward for two years and produced so little, and then the president to come up with a huge agenda for the next weeks -- you have to ask 'why didn't you use some time you spent arguing on some other less important issues before,'" said Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the renewed push on Bolton, whose hawkish views made him a conservative favorite, and the domestic surveillance program that critics call unconstitutional, should not be viewed as "necessarily provocative."


Congress has completed just two annual spending bills for the military and domestic security initiatives, and must deal with measures to finance farm programs, law enforcement, the environment, foreign aid and a range of other programs. Those have been operating through a stop-gap measure set to expire on November 17.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who will become majority leader, issued his own priorities list for the lame duck session -- and it did not include Bush's domestic surveillance program or Bolton.

Instead, Reid highlighted bioterrorism legislation, offshore drilling legislation that passed the Senate earlier this year but not the House, the India nuclear agreement and a bill extending popular business and individual tax breaks, in addition to the spending bills on everyone's list.

Bolton's nomination appears doomed given continued opposition by Democrats and a key Republican, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who lost his reelection bid.

The plan is for lawmakers to break after next week for the Thanksgiving holiday and return starting on December 4 to finish the leftovers. A Senate Republican aide said a bill giving nuclear-armed India access to U.S. nuclear fuel and reactors for the first time in three decades may be ready by then.

The aide also said he hoped the House would accept a Senate-passed bill that would open a small new area in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas drilling. The House backed a broader bill that would open exploration in most U.S. Atlantic and Pacific waters more than 100 miles from shore.