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Money battles at forefront as Congress gets back to work

SHARE Money battles at forefront as Congress gets back to work

WASHINGTON — Congress resumes its legislative battles this week with the White House pressing for more education and defense money and Democrats saying the evaporating budget surplus has put all new spending in jeopardy.

Money, or the lack of it, will be the big issue as Congress returns from its monthlong summer recess to finish work on the fiscal 2002 budget and tackle such priority items as energy policy, patients' rights, farm aid and a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

During the recess, both White House and congressional economists predicted that future budget surpluses would be far smaller than earlier thought, a result of the weak economy and the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut enacted this year.

"I think it's going to be a very difficult fall period for the Congress and the administration," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, foresaw a year-end battle between Republicans defending President Bush's agenda and Democrats fighting to repeal the tax cut. "That's a fight I want to have," he said.

There's also the distraction of whether Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., should lose his seat on the House Intelligence Committee or face other action as a result of his response to the disappearance of former intern Chandra Levy.

Reconvening Tuesday, the Senate takes up changes to the Export Administration Act, a delicate attempt to remove Cold War restrictions on high-tech exports without compromising national security.

The House returns on Wednesday to consider legislation to normalize trade relations with Vietnam. Also high on the House agenda are measures to give the president authority to negotiate new trade agreements and let local phone companies sell high-speed Internet access nationwide.

The House and Senate hold a joint meeting Thursday to hear an address by Mexican President Vicente Fox.

The issue of the diminishing surplus will be taken up in hearings of the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday and Thursday and the House Budget Committee on Wednesday.

Both chambers also must push ahead with 13 spending bills to finance government operations after the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30. So far, the House has passed nine and the Senate five, but none has been put in compromise form so they can be sent to the president.

As in past years, deadlines are expected to slip, with stopgap measures enacted to keep some departments operating. It's virtually certain that the target for adjourning Congress by Oct. 5 will slip.

Two of the largest bills, for education and defense, haven't reached the floor of either house, and Bush has pressed lawmakers not to shortchange those areas. "I'm asking them to let go of some of the old ways of doing business in Washington," he said last week.

But Democrats are balking, blaming the tax cut for putting Congress in a situation where it must either sacrifice important programs or dip into the Social Security trust fund account.

Both parties say they are committed to approving a Medicare prescription drug benefit bill this year, but they disagree on how much money will be needed and how the new program would be paid for.

Votes also are expected this month on a bill to authorize defense programs that includes the administration's goals of spending more to modernize the military and build a missile defense system.

The administration has budgeted more than $70 billion over 10 years to help the nation's farmers, but dwindling federal dollars could affect the final figure in an aid bill coming up this fall.

Among other pending major issues:

—The Senate may take up an energy policy bill, following House passage of legislation to promote domestic energy production and conservation.

—The two chambers are trying to work out differences on bills to overhaul bankruptcy law and to protect the rights of patients in managed care health programs.

—House Democrats and their GOP allies hope to force Republican leaders to give them a vote on limiting campaign spending.

—Democrats plan to push for a raise in the minimum wage, possibly tied to tax cuts for small businesses. Also likely is legislation to extend several tax breaks that expire at the end of 2001 and shield middle-class families caught up in the complex alternative minimum tax.

—Lawmakers face an Oct. 21 deadline to extend an existing moratorium preventing taxes on Internet access and taxes that single out the Internet.