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Congress ignored some Bush items

Ambitious agenda remains unfulfilled as year wraps up

WASHINGTON -- Congress finished some perennial projects this year, including energy, highway, and bankruptcy bills, but stumbled over or ignored some of President Bush's priorities.

''If it were an ordinary year, a traditional year, sort of a simple first year of a president's second term, you would have to say he had a pretty good year," said Stephen Hess, a public affairs professor at George Washington University.

''If you want to look at what he tried to do and didn't do, that list could look pretty robust," he added.

The president handed Congress an ambitious agenda for his fifth year in office. He asked legislators to revamp Social Security drastically, prevent his tax cuts from expiring, rewrite the nation's immigration laws, and restrain government spending.

Bush's Social Security program, which included personal accounts for younger workers, faced united Democratic opposition and public skepticism. It fell flat quickly. Efforts to eliminate estate taxes and keep lower capital gains and dividend tax rates on the books struggled for support while moderate Republicans worried about federal budget deficits. Congress waited until the end of the year to engage in the immigration debate.

A year of work toward cutting government spending bore fruit and invigorated Republicans, both conservative and moderate. It led to an across-the-board spending cut -- only veterans' programs were spared -- and a $40 billion package of program reductions awaiting final action next year.

''With the passage of this deficit reduction act, including an across-the-board cut in federal spending, the 'Republican Revolution' is back," said Representative Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican who leads a group of House conservatives.

Many of Congress's achievements this year were more modest than the goals Bush set for legislators, said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

''They did a lot of tier-two issues that were important to certain constituencies but that, in and of themselves, were not of any great magnitude," Franc said. ''It was not a year for, obviously, enactment or even action on tier-one issues."

The achievements included a popular highway bill that doled out billions in transportation projects across the country. A bankruptcy measure made it more difficult to erase debt obligations. Energy legislation offered billions of dollars in tax subsidies to energy companies and fostered a wider mix of energy sources in future years.

Other measures dealt with the liability of gun manufacturers, class-action lawsuits, terrorism insurance, and the threat of avian flu.

''If anything, this is sort of a tinkering Congress," said Forrest Maltzman, a political science professor at George Washington University.

It didn't help that the president lacked one of his powerful generals, Representative Tom DeLay, Maltzman said. The Texas Republican stepped aside from his duties as House majority leader after being indicted on state charges of money laundering.

But then there were distractions. Two Supreme Court vacancies produced three nominees to fill the voids and three confirmations for the Senate to consider.

John Roberts became the nation's chief justice. Harriet Miers bowed out amid the protests of conservatives. The next nominee, Samuel A. Alito Jr., faces tough Democratic opposition at confirmation hearings in January.

Hurricane Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast, and two hurricanes followed in her wake. Congress quickly got busy providing money and other assistance to clean up the mess and help communities rebuild. Among its last acts, Congress funneled $29 billion to hurricane recovery and reconstruction.

In some cases, Congress pushed back against presidential dictates, to the frustration of GOP leaders at times.

The Senate this week killed a bid to open an Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil exploration. Republicans bucked the president and enacted laws prohibiting the cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of anyone in US custody anywhere in the world. Lawmakers extended the Bush administration's antiterrorism law enforcement powers for a month, to resume a debate over civil liberties next year.

Bush planned bill-signings next week of a massive defense bill that includes the Katrina money and the Patriot Act extension, said an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Bush's schedule had not been announced.

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