Sunday, December 10, 2006

Congress ends with a flurry of legislation

Congress ends with a flurry of legislation
By Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Republican-led 109th Congress ended on Saturday, sending President Bush legislation to normalize trade with former enemy Vietnam, renew popular tax cuts, open the Gulf of Mexico to new oil and gas drilling and keep the government running.

The package was among a stack of bills the Senate and House of Representatives passed as Democrats, victorious in last month's elections, prepared to take control of the new 110th Congress set to convene on January 4.

Democrats vow a quick start by voting next month for the first federal minimum wage increase in a decade. They also are looking to cut costs for health care and education and step up calls for a new strategy in the Iraq war.

"We must end the policies that have divided this nation and come together on a new way forward," Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas said in his party's weekly Saturday radio address.

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Bush also called for an end to partisan bickering over Iraq.

"Now it is the responsibility of all of us in Washington -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- to come together and find greater consensus on the best way forward," Bush said.


Among the bills passed in a marathon session that stretched from early Friday to around 4:40 a.m. (0940 GMT) on Saturday was a bill to help clear the way for nuclear-armed India to buy U.S. nuclear reactors and fuel for the first time in 30 years.

Just beating a Friday midnight deadline, Congress also approved a stop-gap funding bill to keep the government running into next year.

The bill was needed because Republicans left behind nine of 11 spending bills that finance various government programs for the new Democratic-led Congress to finish.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who is retiring from Congress, hailed his fellow Republicans for their work in the final hours of their control.

"Just when everyone bet against us, Republicans put together a broad package of energy, tax, trade and health care measures," Frist said.

The bill would set aside Cold War restrictions on trade with Vietnam and clear the way for U.S. farmers, bankers and other businesses to share in the market-opening benefits of Hanoi's entry into the World Trade Organization next month.

Retiring House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, a California Republican, called the bill "a significant milestone in our efforts to mend the wounds of one of the most divisive conflicts in our nation's history."

The package also gave new life to some expired tax breaks for research and development, education, state and local sales taxes and other popular causes and canceled a pay cut next year for doctors who treat the elderly under Medicare.

The 109th Congress had been criticized for its short work weeks as well as failing to approve a number of major legislative efforts, such as a revamp of immigration laws and the Social Security retirement program. Democrats decried a "culture of corruption" during the election campaign.

On the final full day, a House ethics panel issued a report concluding top Republicans were negligent in failing to protect young interns from unwanted advances by former Rep. Mark Foley, the Florida Republican who resigned in an Internet sex scandal shortly before the November 7 elections.

But the bipartisan panel said it found no violation of House ethics rules and meted out no punishment other than admonishing those it said should have done more.

(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan, Donna Smith)