The Republican-controlled Congress helped itself to a $3,100 pay raise
on Friday, then postponed work on bills to curb spending on social programs
and cut taxes in favor of a two-week vacation.
In the final hours of a tumultuous week in the Capitol, Democrats erupted in
fury when House GOP leaders maneuvered toward a politically-charged vote _ and
swift rejection _ of one war critic's call for the withdrawal of troops from
Iraq. "You guys are pathetic, pathetic," Massachusetts Rep. Martin
Meehan yelled across a noisy hall at Republicans.
On another major issue, a renewal of the Patriot Act remained in limbo as an
unlikely coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans sought
curbs on the powers given law enforcement in the troubled first days after the
2001 terrorist attacks.
Both the House and Senate were in session after midnight Thursday, working
on the tax and deficit-cutting bills at the heart of the GOP agenda, before
returning to work a few hours later.
"What it does is start to turn down the escalating costs ... for our children
and our grandchildren. One of the things that we cannot leave to that next generation
is a huge deficit that they can't afford," House Speaker Dennis Hastert,
R-Ill., said after enactment of a $50 billion deficit-reduction bill.
Democrats dissented, with one eye on the 2006 elections.
"The Republicans are taking food out of the mouths of children to give
tax cuts to America's wealthiest. This is not a statement of America's values,"
said the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. "Democrats
believe that together, America can do better," she said, invoking the party's
new campaign slogan.
The cost-of-living increase for members of Congress _ which will put pay for
the rank and file at an estimated $165,200 a year _ marked a brief truce in
the pitched political battles that have flared in recent weeks on the war and
So much so that the issue was not mentioned on the floor of either the House
or Senate as lawmakers worked on legislation whose passage will assure bigger
Lawmakers automatically receive a cost of living increase each year, unless
Congress votes to block it. By tradition, critics have tried to block increases
by attaching a provision to the legislation that provides funding for the Treasury
Department. One such attempt succeeded in the Senate earlier in the year, but
the provision was omitted from the compromise measure moved toward final approval.
The overall bill provided $140 billion for transportation, housing and other
programs. It cleared the House on a vote of 392-31. Senate passage was by voice
Pay raise harmony aside, Republicans spent the day celebrating a party-line,
post-midnight vote in which the House cleared legislation to reduce deficits
by $50 billion over five years. The vote was 217-215, with all the Democrats
who voted in opposition, along with 14 GOP rebels.
Acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt of Missouri said Republicans would make their
tax cut bill the top item on the agenda when lawmakers return to the Capitol
The House-passed measure attacks deficits by limiting spending for the first
time in a decade on Medicaid, food stamps, student loans and other benefit programs
that normally rise with inflation and eligibility.
The House GOP leadership had hoped to clear the measure a week ago. It was
forced to retreat when Republican moderates rebelled, even after Hastert agreed
to strip out a controversial proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
to oil drilling.
The Senate-passed companion measure calls for less deficit reduction, $35 billion
over five years, but includes the ANWR provision.
The differences are expected to make it difficult for the House and Senate
to reach a compromise by year's end, particularly since Republicans can't count
on any Democratic support.
The tax bill presents difficulties of its own for a GOP majority struggling
to translate last fall's election gains into this year's legislative achievements.
The Senate cleared a measure after 1:30 a.m. that calls for $60 billion in
cuts over five years.
The measure drew bipartisan support, passing on a vote of 64-33. Its provisions
would continue a series of existing tax breaks that otherwise will expire, and
shelters 14 million upper middle-income families from higher taxes.
The White House has threatened a veto, citing a provision that raises taxes
on oil companies.
The House has yet to pass a companion measure. When it does, the tax on oil
companies is unlikely to be included, and it is likely to be jettisoned before
a compromise measure reaches the White House.
Hastert said Republicans want to "make sure that we support our troops
that are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan ... a lot of people say: Look, this
is a tough time, we just ought to pull out and leave. We pull out and leave,
we strand an effort to make sure that we can tamp down terrorism, to tamp down
a dictatorship, that we can stabilize an area in the Middle East," he added.
GOP aides conceded the last-minute maneuver was designed to put Democrats in
a political squeeze _ voting for withdrawal and exposing themselves to attacks
from the White House, or voting against it and risk angering the voters that
polls show want an end to the conflict.
Democrats angrily attacked the GOP move, then lined up with Republicans to
vote against a troop withdrawal in hopes of draining the issue of its political
significance. The vote was 403-3 against the measure.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., called the measure "a piece of garbage"
and an attack on Rep. John Murtha. The Pennsylvania Democrat, a decorated veteran
and respected congressional voice on military matters, said Thursday it was
time for the troops to come home.
House and Senate negotiators announced a tentative agreement earlier in the
week to pass a seven-year extension of the Patriot Act. Key senators lawmakers
involved in the talks balked at the terms, and officials said they would resume
compromise efforts when Congress returns to work in December.