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Congress has many unfinished tasks

Pensions, energy, and immigration remain on agenda

WASHINGTON -- US lawmakers returning today from a weeklong break will resume work on a long list of unfinished -- and possibly insurmountable -- tasks that could help decide whether voters will reelect them in November.

Action or inaction on contentious issues including immigration, pensions, energy, and federal spending could determine whether the Congress sheds the impression that it has made few legislative achievements.

``I'm not sure what this Congress has accomplished," said Dick Armey, the former House Republican leader who is now with FreedomWorks, which advocates lower taxes and less government.

Both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and House have been staking out positions they hope will help them win control of Congress in the November midterm elections.

``Historically, this is certainly not a Congress that will be remembered," said Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. ``There is just not much there."

In the first two-thirds of the 2006 legislative session, Congress has passed two major bills: renewal of the Patriot Act and an extension of $70 billion in federal tax cuts.

One of the toughest issues before it is immigration reform, a top domestic priority for President Bush. Passions run high and it is unclear whether the Senate and the House will bridge the gap between vastly different bills.

The House passed a Republican-written border security and enforcement bill that further criminalizes illegal presence in the country. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill that combines border security and enforcement with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Other tough issues lawmakers face include:

Stem cell research: Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, announced plans to consider bipartisan legislation that would expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. It is opposed by antiabortion groups and Bush has threatened to veto it.

Pension plans: House and Senate negotiators have been trying to strike a deal to shore up employer-sponsored pension plans for 44 million Americans in older industries such as automobiles, airlines, and steel.

Energy: Despite high gasoline prices upsetting voters, prospects are uncertain for two bills providing incentives to build refineries and open new areas for offshore crude oil and natural gas drilling.

In addition, a number of lawmakers are rushing to write bills to give Bush authority for a special system to try terrorism suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. The push for legislation follows a US Supreme Court ruling saying the military tribunal system set up by the Bush administration violated the Geneva Convention and US military rules.

Also hanging over Congress is the one issue it must handle this year: funding the federal government.

When the Senate returns today, it will take up a spending bill totaling nearly $32 billion that includes money for border patrols, the embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency, dirty-bomb detection, and other domestic security activities.

It is one of 11 spending bills Congress hopes to complete before Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins. There is little agreement, even among members of each party, about how much to spend and how much to cut.

Lawmakers still have high hopes of sending Bush bills to bolster pension protections for 44 million workers and extending the historic Voting Rights Act. Republicans would like to protect multimillionaires from getting sacked by high inheritance taxes after a one-year reprieve from those taxes in 2010.

Frist also has broken a deadlock over legislation to allow the government to pay for embryonic stem-cell research. The measure has passed the House and the bill could get a vote this month in the Senate. Neither the House nor Senate, however, has displayed the two-thirds majorities required to override Bush's promised veto.

The bill intended to shield the Pledge of Allegiance from federal court challenges still can be revived on the House floor if GOP leaders so choose, Republicans say. Privately, no one pretends to be pleased about the lack of progress on legislation that should have sailed through the committee and a House floor vote.

The legislative year is littered with failed or stalled Republican priorities, such as the immigration overhaul, repealing estate taxes, and changing rules on lobbying in response to several ethics scandals.

Particularly stinging was the forced postponement last month on renewing the Voting Rights Act on the day it was to get a vote in the full House.

The measure, which outlawed racist voting practices in the South, had support from leaders in both houses and parties.

But Southern Republicans rebelled against a requirement that the Justice Department continue overseeing voting rules in the South. Other conservatives then balked at the law's requirement for bilingual ballots in areas with large immigrant populations. Nonetheless, House Republican leaders say they may try to bring it up this week.

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