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The Oklahoman - Debates in Congress Expected to Heat Up

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The Oklahoman - Debates in Congress Expected to Heat Up

By Chris Casteel
The Oklahoman

Congress returns to Washington this week from its month-long recess with major battles looming over the war in Iraq, government spending, farm policy, health insurance for children and numerous other issues.

"You've got a series of both policy and spending issues that will come to a head in the fall," Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, said last week.

"It's not going to be a fun time," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee.

Hovering over the fall session is the threat of a government shutdown if Democratic leaders and the White House can't work out big differences over how much money should be spent on government operations in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Coburn and Cole said they hope a shutdown is averted. Congress' low approval rating isn't likely to be helped by gridlock that reaches that extreme, they warned.

"A government shutdown would be bad news," Cole said. "I don't see anyone winning."

Said Coburn, "I can't believe — with how Americans feel about Congress right now — that anyone would be so stupid to have a showdown that leads to a government shutdown."

Deadlines loom

In the last few years under Republican control, Congress failed to pass all its appropriations bills on time — or even pass some at all. That doesn't appear likely to change in the first year of Democratic control. Though the House has approved the spending bills for government agencies, the Senate has not.

And even if the Senate were to pass them before the Sept. 30 deadline, they would have to go to House-Senate conference committees for final versions to be written.

If the deadline isn't met, Congress would have to pass temporary measures to keep the government running at current spending levels.

Congress is facing other Sept. 30 deadlines as well: farm programs will expire on that date, as will the cooperative program with states to provide health insurance to children whose family incomes are above the poverty level.

Both houses have passed legislation to extend and expand the child health insurance program, but there are major differences that need to be ironed out.

President Bush has vowed to veto the congressional proposals.

The House passed a farm bill in July, but the Senate has yet to consider its own version. The president has vowed to veto the House bill.

Temporary measures might also be needed to keep the farm and insurance programs running.

Focus on Iraq

Work on the spending bills, child health insurance and the farm bill is likely to be stalled in part by a focus this month on the war in Iraq and a report, due by Sept. 15, from Army Gen. David Petraeus, who is in charge of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Coburn and Cole said they expect the war debate to dominate the Capitol Hill agenda for weeks.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said last week that "a change of course in Iraq is long overdue. In the coming weeks, Democrats will once again press Republicans to join the fight to make that change — a change that is essential for America's national security."

Cole said, "It's sort of up to Democrats on what they want to do" in terms of voting on war strategy. "My sense is that the president has the political strength to continue the surge into early next year."

Coburn said he believes the focus of debate will still be on timetables for withdrawal.

None of the seven members of Oklahoma's congressional delegation have been willing to support timetables, and Coburn said he wouldn't now.

"I think you've got to stay there until you've got some stability," he said.

Rep. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee, the only Democrat in the delegation, opposed the surge and has been frustrated by the lack of political progress in Iraq.

He has been waiting for the Sept. 15 report from Petraeus to determine whether he may change his position, which has been steadfastly against timetables. Boren was unavailable for comment last week.

Partisanship returns, too

Besides the urgent deadlines Congress was already facing upon its return, a new one was added in August when a bridge in Minnesota collapsed, drawing new attention to the nation's aging infrastructure.

A hearing in the House on the state of the nation's bridges is scheduled for this week, and there is already a proposal to raise taxes to fund repairs.

Cole and Coburn said tax hikes are unnecessary and Congress should instead look at redirecting money to the problem.

In terms of infrastructure, the Senate is expected to pass a bill shortly after returning that would authorize billions of dollars in water projects. That bill is also on Bush's veto list.

Coburn said he expects Bush to stick to the threats he has made on specific legislation and overall spending.

"President Bush has nothing to lose," Coburn said. "He's going to be identified by the war; he might as well go on his principles."

Both the Oklahoma lawmakers predicted that the partisanship that has dominated the debates on the war, spending and other issues will continue.

"I think you'll see a large lack of statesmanship," Coburn said.

"I think it will be a very contentious fall," Cole said.

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