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SPOKESPERSON: The Honorable J. Dennis Hastert, representative of Illinois, and the escort to committee!
KWAME HOLMAN: The start of a new Congress always is a time of great hope, and the first day of the 107th Congress, January 3, 2001, was no exception. Republicans held a narrow majority in the House, yet there was no shortage of Democratic goodwill.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I hope the closeness of the margin between our parties in the Congress will be viewed as an opportunity, not a hindrance.
KWAME HOLMAN: And there was reason for optimism.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: After all, our country is at peace. Our economy is still fundamentally strong.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate was divided 50-50 between the two parties, but Republicans were assured of taking control once Dick Cheney was sworn in as Vice President, and therefore, President of the Senate with the tie-breaking vote. On that January day, no one could have imagined all that Congress eventually would have to confront: Republican Jim Jeffords left his party, and Senate control swung back to the Democrats; the September 11th attacks; the anthrax mailings; the corporate accounting scandals; and the stock market plunge.
This week, 22 months after the 107th Congress convened, members left Washington battered and bruised from one of the most unproductive legislative sessions in memory. There have been some accomplishments. Congress passed and the President signed into law an education reform bill, a major tax cut, along with campaign finance reform, and new corporate accountability measures. Congress also moved quickly on some emergency airport safety procedures following the terrorist attacks and granted the government new law enforcement authority, expanding the use of wiretaps and giving greater latitude in detaining non-citizens suspected of terrorism. Members debated and voted to grant the President authority to use force against Iraq.
And just this week, Congress approved a package of election reforms along with money to help states upgrade their voting systems. Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd and Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell were Senate sponsors of the bill.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: First, let me say to my good friend from Connecticut, this is, indeed, something to celebrate on a bipartisan basis in a Congress that could use a celebration. This has been the most unproductive and unsuccessful session of the Senate certainly in my 18 years here.
KWAME HOLMAN: The leaders of both parties had labeled a prescription drug plan for seniors as “must do” legislation for this session, but they didn’t get it done. A bill to tighten rules governing personal and business bankruptcies got hung up over language related to abortion clinics; and an energy bill promoting conservation and renewable fuels, as well as increased oil and gas production, has been stalled since June.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Will we be able to get an energy conference report? I don’t see any indication from the Senate Democrats they really want that.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: All I will say is that it’s our hope that we can continue to press forward with an expectation that at some point we can get an energy bill.
KWAME HOLMAN: And of the 13 annual appropriations bills Congress is required to approve by October 1 to fund government operations, only the defense and military construction measures have been sent to the President for his signature.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: The Republicans don’t seem to be able to get a consensus within their own caucus about at what level this funding ought to be provided.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: The bad news is there’s an awful lot of things that we should have done weeks or months ago that have not been done and now probably will not be done. I think the explanation for it is very simple, in this statement: “Senate Democratic leadership just says it doesn’t matter.”
KWAME HOLMAN: But the most acrimonious dispute centers on the 177,000 federal workers whose departments and agencies would be combined under the new Department of Homeland Security. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have been at an impasse for weeks over how much flexibility the President should have to supercede workers’ civil service and union rights.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: The bill they wrote seeks to exploit the issue of homeland security in order to advance a preexisting ideological agenda. It is an ultra-conservative agenda that is anti-worker and obviously antiunion. More importantly, it has nothing to do with homeland security.
SEN. PHIL GRAMM: First of all, this idea that we don’t want a homeland security bill, everybody wants a homeland security bill. I have never suggested the Democrats don’t want a homeland security bill. They love homeland security. Their problem is they love public employee labor unions more.
KWAME HOLMAN: Both sides have manipulated the Senate rules to try to guarantee a successful vote for their respective positions, resulting in a stalemate.
SEN. PHIL GRAMM: Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the Senate resume consideration of HR 5005, the homeland defense bill.
SEN. HARRY REID: I, without reservation or qualification, object.
SPOKESMAN: Objection is heard.
KWAME HOLMAN: Most members of Congress now have gone home, many of them to campaign for reelection. But they will return to Washington after the election, when even those recently defeated and soon to be retired will participate in a rare “lame-duck” session, with one last chance to tie up all of those legislative loose ends.