Discordant note as Congress nears recess

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Congress stumbled toward its August recess on a discordant note yesterday as angry partisanship and distrust slowed the House and Senate in one last example of the ideological standoff that has made progress difficult all year.

A bitter procedural fight in the House forced Democrats to delay until today consideration of an energy efficiency bill that they had hoped would cap off a week of accomplishment before heading home. But lawmakers put disagreements aside long enough for the House to approve $250 million to help rebuild the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis.

Even as they tried to fight off Republican accusations of heavy-handedness, Democrats sought to portray their first months in charge as a success, pointing to this week's approval of new ethics and lobbying rules as well as initial House and Senate passage of a major expansion of a children's health care program.

"So much has come to fruition," Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in an interview as she noted other accomplishments, including a higher minimum wage and an anti-terror measure signed into law yesterday by President Bush.

But House Republicans were incensed and accused Democrats of abruptly gaveling a roll-call vote to a close when Republicans appeared to be pulling ahead on an agricultural spending bill late Thursday. "Rarely has the radical agenda of this Democrat majority been more on display," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

House and Senate Republicans joined Bush in demanding that Congress remain in session until it passed changes in a terrorist surveillance program acceptable to the administration. But Democrats suspected that Republicans were more interested in painting Democrats as soft on terrorism, saying that every time they acceded to administration requests, new ones surfaced.

The infighting took an almost surreal turn yesterday afternoon when House voting machinery malfunctioned just hours after the blowup over the agricultural bill. The failure of the equipment that displays the running vote total and the time remaining during a procedural fight on the floor just after the earlier blowup had lawmakers on edge and both sides looking over their shoulders.

"I am just trying to figure out who is doing the dastardly things," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, as he urged calm on the floor during what Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican, described as a "very, very difficult time for this institution."

Republicans dismissed Democratic claims of overall legislative success, pointing to dismal approval ratings for Congress as evidence that the public is unhappy with the new majority party's performance. And Democrats have so far been unable to deliver on a chief demand of many party supporters -- the beginning of withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Even a news conference by Democratic leaders, intended to highlight the recent achievements, was postponed twice yesterday as negotiations continued over the surveillance bill. Finally, when the leaders emerged, they looked ahead to legislative action on the war in September and a potential showdown with Bush over federal spending.

"We have great hurdles to overcome," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader.

Democrats dismissed as hollow the Republican mantra that the new managers of Congress have accomplished little. They said they had succeeded in spite of fierce Republican resistance that continued into the final hours.

Besides the lobbying, health care and wage legislation, Democrats are near bipartisan approval of a major higher education bill. The House and Senate approved a measure that makes billions of dollars available for basic research and neared final approval of a $21 billion water projects bill. This year, after a protracted fight with the White House, Congress approved a war-spending measure that contained billions of dollars for Gulf Coast recovery, active duty and veterans' health care and agricultural assistance.

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