Lawmakers Return from Thanksgiving Recess

Returning from their holiday recess for a two-week session, members of Congress have a lot on their plate before they leave again for Christmas. But what can they accomplish?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, co-host:

And Tom DeLay's legal problems are just one of the things Republican members of Congress will have to deal with as they make their way back to snowy Washington for a two-week December session. NPR's Brian Naylor reports there's actually a lot on the agenda.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

The Republicans' to-do list is almost as long as a 10-year-old's Christmas list. At the top are two important spending bills; one is for the Department of Defense and is needed to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; the other pays for many of the government programs low- and middle-income Americans rely on, such as home heating assistance and student loans. The defense measure is complicated by Senator John McCain's amendment that bans inhumane treatment of military prisoners. The Bush administration opposes it, but the two sides have been negotiating over the language in recent weeks. House Republicans are also expected to take up a bill extending tax cuts for investors and wealthy Americans and work with the Senate, which returns next week, on a package of spending cuts. Republican Congressman Jack Kingston of Georgia says it's important for the GOP majority to finish work on these measures before the end of the year.

Representative JACK KINGSTON (Republican, Georgia): I think it's a must-do situation on deficit reduction. We have caught all kinds of grief from the Democrats and from our own base on spending too much money, and here's an opportunity to say, `You know what? We went back and we discovered there was about $40 billion to $50 billion, maybe as high as $60 billion that we could save by reforming some things.'

NAYLOR: One reason for the urgency surrounding this session is the Republican need to change this subject from the ethics charges swirling around Congress. Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham has admitted taking some $2.4 million in bribes from a defense contractor and resigned his seat. And former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay remains under indictment in Texas. What's more, the investigation of a former lobbyist threatens to engulf other Republicans in Congress. Kingston says it's important Republicans have something to show voters.

Rep. KINGSTON: With these things in the backdrop that say, `You know what? The train of government continues to roll, and that's why it's important to pass this important legislation.'

NAYLOR: But will it be enough? American University political science Professor James Thurber doesn't think so.

Professor JAMES THURBER (American University): I think it's going to be very difficult to overcome the questions of unethical behavior and corruption and cronyism that is going on now, associated primarily with Republicans, by passing legislation. I think that this is a story that will continue and it will expand. It's radioactive and it's hurting them.

NAYLOR: Already Democrats, such as Congressman Joseph Crowley of New York, are pouncing on what they're calling the culture of corruption in Congress.

Representative JOSEPH CROWLEY (Democrat, New York): I think if there were a report card that was going to be given out to the House leadership, I think they'd say the students were having an amazing ability to get themselves in trouble, but they lack focus in any clear direction. That would be the type of report card they would get right now, not a very stellar one.

NAYLOR: There are other issues awaiting action; a renewal of the Patriot Act, provisions of which expire at the end of the month, is one. And the House Judiciary Committee is expected to consider an immigration bill, but that issue, which has divided Republicans in both chambers, won't be addressed by the Senate until next year. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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