WASHINGTON – As Congress began its final week before the midterm elections, a veteran Senate chairman was asked the question ricocheting all over town:
Will Congress finish its work before lawmakers leave?
“No, just leave,” Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said with a grin.
Not facing re-election this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman could afford such candor. But the Republican incumbents reapplying for their jobs will have some explaining to do on the campaign trail.
They cannot blame all the unfinished business on Democrats. Not with one of their own in the White House. Or with 11 years of uninterrupted GOP control of the House. Or with the Senate, for all but two of those years, run by Republicans.
The Republican majority chose to end the congressional session to give lawmakers five weeks to campaign before the Nov. 7 elections.
Among the unfinished business are nine of 11 bills needed to fund government into the new budget year that begins today, as well as legislation to govern President Bush’s program for wiretapping the U.S.-overseas phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists without court warrants, and improving health care for some 24 million veterans.
The GOP could proclaim victories in giving Bush the authority to detain, interrogate and try terrorism detainees before military tribunals instead of civilian courts. They also voted a 2.2 percent pay raise for the military and devoted more money to keeping illegal immigrants out of the country and deporting those already here.
Many of the biggest legislative failures were GOP priorities that toppled when Republicans split into factions. One involved diverting some Social Security taxes into private retirement accounts.
In the end, the “political capital” Bush boasted of in the giddy aftermath of the 2004 elections appeared pretty much spent before lawmakers left Saturday.
None of the major overhauls Bush announced in his 2005 State of the Union address succeeded – Social Security, medical malpractice, tax laws.
A comprehensive overhaul of immigration law to include a guest worker program stalled amid voter unrest over illegal immigrants.
Perennial Republican legislative favorites such as abortion restriction and constitutional bans on gay marriage and flag desecration fell to defeat in largely party-line votes.
Only a few hours before adjourning, Republicans salvaged what they could from the ruins of the immigration fight and approved a bill to build a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border that Bush could sign into law before Election Day.
Already having fun, one Democrat campaign T-shirt read: “My senator went to Washington and all I got was this lousy 700-mile fence.”