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Glow of bipartisanship seems to dim as Congress weighs anti-terror bills

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - The airport security bill is being held up by a filibuster. A nasty snag entangled the anti-terrorism bill as it was being readied for Senate debate. Efforts to shape an economic stimulus bill must overcome vast differences over whether tax cuts or spending increases should take priority.

Meanwhile, the House erupted Thursday night in the latest noisy round of a 2-decade-old debate over sugar subsidies.

Seems like old times on Capitol Hill: The lawmakers who joined hands Sept. 11 for a bipartisan chorus of "God Bless America" have returned to their contentious ways.

"Bipartisanship is abnormal," Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, House Democratic leader, observed as he prepared to resist President Bush's request for expanded powers to negotiate trade agreements.

"We all come here representing different people with different viewpoints, and a big part of our job is to express those viewpoints."

Even as the fundamental differences between the parties have resurfaced, lawmakers say the terrorist attacks have altered the atmosphere for the foreseeable future.

"It permeates the institution," said Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican. "There is a bond now that I think holds us together. It's the Sept. 11 bond. In every debate on every bill, it will be mentioned. We all feel some degree of hurt and pain and suffering.

"As we get back into the issues that people feel strongly about," LaHood added, "then the luster kind of gets a little bit dull."

Perhaps the most evident change since the attacks, said James A. Thurber, a presidential scholar at American University, is that both parties seem to have suspended the "permanent campaign" in which nothing ever seemed to get done because everyone seemed to act with the next election uppermost in mind. Congress has thus been able to make progress on legislation.

"How long that lasts is anybody's guess," Thurber said.

Any luster from that Sept. 11 bond seemed quite dull this week when Senate leaders sparred over the airport security bill, which is designed to set new federal standards for airplane safety and for screening passengers and baggage.

Republicans and the Bush White House are trying to block the Democrats' efforts to hire federal employees to conduct the passenger and baggage screening. Republicans say that plan would unnecessarily expand the federal work force. They argue instead that private contractors can continue to handle such screening under the direction of federal law enforcement officials.

But Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat who is chairman of the Commerce Committee, insists that the federal government should not be "contracting out national security."

Republicans also complained that Democrats seemed intent on offering amendments that would attach to the airport bill more money for improving security at railways and other transportation facilities. The Republicans argued that such issues should be dealt with on other bills.

As the week drew to a close with the airport bill snarled in a Senate stall, Tom Daschle, the majority leader, dropped his polite veneer with a thud.

"There's a filibuster on the airport security bill at the very time when we're trying to respond to all of the serious safety and security questions that we've got to address," Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, protested.

He observed that the defense policy bill had also been held up briefly by a Republican filibuster. And he complained that legislation to provide spending for foreign operations is being delayed by Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, who acknowledged that he is using it as leverage to push through some judicial nominations.

"Three filibusters, three critical bills," Daschle said, accusing his colleagues of "obstruction in, I believe, the most harmful way as we try to address this emergency agenda."

Lott's response to Daschle's charge that he is being an obstructionist was, in essence, that it takes one to know one.

"Senator Lott is disappointed that some would choose to obstruct an airline security bill meant to make American airports the safest in the world because of unrelated issues," such as railroad money, said Lott's spokesman, Ron Bonjean.

After three weeks of what appeared to be extraordinary cooperation and good will, the tone of the Washington debate soured badly Tuesday, when Attorney General John Ashcroft stopped briefly before television cameras outside the Senate chamber.

A former senator whose nomination to be attorney general was opposed by most Senate Democrats, Ashcroft complained about "the rather slow pace" of negotiations with those same Democrats over his request for increased law enforcement powers to investigate and prosecute terrorists.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, countered that a deal seemed to have been struck until the White House reneged on several key points he thought were settled. A bargain was finally sealed late Wednesday night on a bill likely to be voted upon next week. But hard feelings remain.

On the economic stimulus package, the president further stoked yesterday what promises to be a spirited debate over the relative virtues of tax cuts and spending increases. Bush opposes any more spending beyond the nearly $60 billion he has agreed to. But some Democrats say America needs a substantial package of public works spending on highways, mass transit and utilities - not only to improve national security, but also to create jobs.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, said Bush's stand would make it more difficult to reach an agreement but said he did not view that development as signaling a return to fierce partisanship: "A lot of our differences are not partisan, but policy differences within parties."

Indeed, there are plenty of signs of continued bipartisan progress. The White House and congressional negotiators struck a deal this week on a spending ceiling for the regular fiscal 2002 budget that will avoid a veto showdown that had once been anticipated.

The farm bill rolled out of the House with a strong bipartisan vote and its sugar subsides intact. A spirited debate over how to set up an outside commission to investigate intelligence failures related to the terrorist attacks ended with a House compromise that was adopted yesterday on a voice vote.

As one of a group of Democrats who delayed for a week the $15 billion airline bailout bill because it offered nothing to laid-off workers, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon said: "I never gave up on the idea that we should have legitimate policy differences. I think that's part of the system we're defending against the terrorists and other enemies of the United States."

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