Heading the list of unfinished business when Congress returns after the election is creation of the Homeland Security Department and 11 annual spending bills.

After authorizing President George W. Bush to go to war against Iraq, lawmakers recessed on Oct. 18 in order to campaign full-time. How differences over the federal budget and homeland security will be resolved and whether the lame-duck session can, or even should, pass other legislation are matters of debate and could hinge on the outcome of the mid-term election.

Some members have suggested putting off decisions until early next year, when newly elected members will take office.

Although little progress had been made on breaking the deadlock over contentious major issues since early August, Congress began its recess two weeks behind schedule.

Last week, with only a short time left before voters go to the polls, congressional leaders, Bush and much of his Cabinet joined candidates on the campaign trail in key races around the country. As usual, Democrats are trying once again to capture control of the House, but the main focus is on battleground Senate seats that Bush and Republicans are trying to win or hold, enabling them to take back the Senate.

The outcome on Nov. 5 could shift control of the House and Senate and otherwise alter the political climate, or President George W. Bush and Republican and Democratic leaders could simply find it easier to compromise without fear of immediate consequences in terms of antagonized voters or depressed party turnout.

Among major issues left open for the lame-duck session were several of particular importance to the Northwest congressional delegation, including forest fire reduction projects, an extension of unemployment benefits for laid-off workers, a comprehensive energy bill and $6 billion in aid to farmers and ranchers who suffered losses from drought and storms.

Bipartisan negotiations are expected to resume after the election on wildfire legislation and the energy bill. Bush and various members have proposed expediting thinning and commercial logging projects on up to 10 million acres of federal land to reduce fire risk, but environmentalists and many Democrats are opposed to restrictions on citizen and judicial challenges.

The House and Senate are trying to compromise on measures to boost energy production and conservation, including Bush's plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Senate bill includes a $1.3 billion increase the Bonneville Power Administration's federal loan limit to pay for future electricity transmission line upgrades and construction in the Northwest.

Washington and Oregon have ranked second and third in the nation in unemployment for most of the year, with 7.4 percent and 6.8 percent respectively, in September. Idaho's jobless rate of 5.5 percent is about the same as the national average.

Thousands of people who have lost their jobs will exhaust their unemployment benefits in the coming weeks. "Too many people are having trouble finding work and need a little extra help while they look for a job in a tough economy," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said before the recess.

Cantwell and other Democrats urged action on a 33-week extension of benefits for high-unemployment states, but Congress did not act before leaving town. Some House Republican leaders refused to allow the measure to come up for a vote without attaching an increase in tax breaks for people who have suffered stock market losses. Election factors along with slim majorities in the House and Senate made it more difficult this year for Republicans and Democrats to resolve their differences over the annual budget and federal employee rights.

Republican leaders stood with Bush against Democratic efforts to increase spending for education and other domestic needs and to guarantee civil service and union protection for workers being transferred to the new department.

Although the new fiscal year began Oct. 1, only two, defense-related spending bills out of 13 appropriations measures have been passed. Democrats charged Republicans ducked their responsibility to avoid making politically risky spending cuts, but their efforts to stay in session were defeated.

Although Congress will return a week after the election, Republican leaders do not expect to tackle the spending bills until December.

To prevent a government shutdown, federal agencies and programs have received temporary funding at last year's budget levels. New budgets would be set in appropriations bills, which could also become vehicles to pass Northwest and other legislation as amendments.

For example, the Senate interior appropriations bill, which funds the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, is the closest to final action. It has been stalled in the Senate since September by fighting over wildfire reduction proposals.


Larry Swisher covers Northwest issues from Washington, D.C.

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