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Mixed results as the year in Congress nears conclusion

WASHINGTON -- Democrats and Republicans disagree on the accomplishments of the 108th Congress, but one thing is certain: Hundreds of programs, from highway building to welfare reform, are being kept on life support through temporary measures because lawmakers failed to meet deadline after deadline for renewing them.

The Capitol was empty yesterday, with Republican lawmakers back home pitching to their constituents the successes, and Democrats the failures, of the 108th Congress, which is crawling toward its finish.

Republicans had some things to brag about, with Congress in its final hours passing a $136 billion tax break package that will bring sweeping changes to corporate tax rules and approving a disaster relief bill that will mainly benefit the pivotal election state of Florida.

But Democrats contend that the GOP-led Congress can't officially call it quits because it has failed to carry out its most essential function -- passing the spending bills that keep the federal government running -- and has yet to agree on reforms to the intelligence community called for by the Sept. 11 Commission.

The Senate has already scheduled a lame-duck session in mid-November to take up the spending bills, and Congress will have to reconvene at some point, before or after the Nov. 2 elections, to deal with legislation that would create a post of national intelligence director.

''There have been frustrations," Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, said Monday, the Senate's last day, of his efforts to guide a chamber where Republicans hold a bare majority of 51 seats and the traditional collegiality has been frayed by stridently partisan differences over Iraq and the effects of Republican tax cuts.

Frist, Republican of Tennessee, pointed with pride to ''two major pieces of reform that will have generational impact," the Medicare prescription drug measure enacted last year and the intelligence reorganization bill he hopes to pass this fall.

He said he was most exasperated by unprecedented Democratic efforts to block the confirmation of some of President Bush's judicial nominations.

His Democratic counterpart, Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, countered that the Republican leadership, on a number of occasions, ''pursued an all-or-nothing strategy that can be poisonous to the legislative process."

Daschle said this partisanship, even more pronounced in the House, was behind Congress's inability to pass a six-year $300 billion highway and mass transit bill that could have created hundreds of thousands of jobs, an energy bill to make America less dependent on foreign oil, and legislation enabling Americans to buy less expensive prescription drugs from abroad.

Some of the 108th Congress's major achievements occurred in 2003, before election campaigning began in earnest. Besides the Medicare bill, lawmakers approved a $330 billion package of tax cuts, a $15 billion bill for international AIDS victims, and an $87 billion measure for security and reconstruction in Iraq.

It also passed a popular do-not-call registry to bar unwanted telemarketer contacts and for the first time banned late-term abortion. That ban is currently blocked by the courts.

The agenda this year has been lighter as the focus turned to the election. The House Democratic whip, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, said that as of Friday, the day before the House adjourned, it had met on only 102 days in 2004, the fewest in decades.

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