Before leaving for Congress’s December break the Senate approved a $39.7 billion, five-year deficit reduction bill by a vote of 51 to 50. Among the provisions of the bill are an increase in out-of-pocket costs for Medicare, changes in welfare and child-support programs to save $1.6 billion and a change in the student loan program to save $12.7 billion by fixing the interest rate at 6.8 percent. However, a parliamentary procedure to strike three small provisions required that the bill return to the House of Representatives for another vote.
The Senate also approved spending bills to fund Fiscal Year 2006 health, education and labor programs and the Department of Defense, as well as a six-month extension of the USA Patriot Act.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, now chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee and famous for the pork project known as “The Bridge to Nowhere,” added a provision to the defense bill that would allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Senate approved the defense bill by a vote of 93 to 0 but eliminated the drilling authority.
When the Senate returned on January 18, it focused its attention on the Patriot Act, an asbestos litigation reform bill and the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito Jr., to the Supreme Court. When the House reconvened on January 31, it was expected to first consider the deficit-reduction bill passed by the Senate and an extension of the Patriot Act.
The Senate and House passed bills for tax cut extensions, but the main components of the bills differ, necessitating a conference committee to draft a compromise bill.
During the congressional time out, lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion. Abramoff, who allegedly lavished lawmakers with luxury trips, skybox fundraisers, campaign contributions, jobs for spouses and meals at the upscale restaurant he owned, told prosecutors that he would speak up about House and Senate members who were beneficiaries of his largesse. At press time, some two dozen lawmakers had announced that they would donate Abramoff’s campaign contributions, estimated at $515,199, to various charities. More revelations and donations were in the offing. Both the Senate and the House place limits on the gifts and travel costs legislators can accept and have rules about how legislators should account for them. With the heat on, those rules may undergo review and revision.
At press time a number of bills were in the pipeline awaiting Congress’s return:
• S.2083, introduced by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), would prevent the assistant secretary for homeland security from removing any item from the current list of items prohibited from being carried aboard a passenger aircraft. H.R.4452, the “Leave All Blades Behind Act,” introduced by Rep. Joseph Crowley (R-N.Y.), is similar.
• S.2108, the “Backcountry Landing Strip Access Act,” introduced by Sen. Michael Crapo (R-Idaho), would ensure general aviation aircraft access to federal land and the airspace above it.
• S.2135, introduced by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), and H.R.4542, introduced by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), are identical. The bills would direct the Secretary of Transportation to report to Congress about proposed changes to long-standing policies that prohibit foreign interests from exercising actual control over the economic, competitive, safety and security decisions of U.S. airlines.
• H.R.4439, the “Transportation Security Administration Reorganization Act of 2005,” introduced by Rep. Daniel Lungran (R-Calif.), would establish within the TSA an airport screening organization to improve federal security screening services for passenger air transportation by increasing efficiency, taking better advantage of new technologies, reducing unit costs and responding more effectively to the needs of the traveling public while enhancing aviation security.
• H.R.4512, introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), would direct the Secretary of Homeland Security to conduct a pilot program to evaluate the use of automated systems for the immediate prescreening of passengers on flights in foreign air transportation.