Congress Ends Lame-Duck Session at Loose Ends
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
The lame-duck 109th Congress limped to the finished line early this morning. It failed to pass important spending bills and settle for stopgap measures to avoid a federal government shutdown. Democrats take control of Congress in January. They'll have their work cut out for them. Also the House wrapped up its probe into the Mark Foley congressional page scandal.
NPR congressional correspondent David Welna joins us. David, still - still going, still awake?
DAVID WELNA: I'm still awake, Scott.
SIMON: What got accomplished earlier this morning?
WELNA: Well, I should say that what the Congress failed to accomplish was its main goal of the lame-duck session, which was to finish the spending bills. But Congress did manage to pass this morning before going out a big Christmas tree-like bill decked with all sorts of goodies that Republicans wanted to take credit for. It had extensions of tax breaks for everything from college tuitions and research and development to a measure sharing rum excise taxes with Puerto Rico.
And all of this, it's worth noting, will widen the budget deficit by another $38 billion, which had the Senate budget committee chairman howling. The bill also has a couple of trade deals thrown in, one of them was Vietnam, and another one that gives desperately poor Haiti some breaks for exporting clothing to the U.S., and that one made lawmakers from textile manufacturing states pretty unhappy.
This lame-duck Congress also opened up more than eight million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas exploration. And to the Bush administration's relief, lawmakers gave final approval to a deal in which the U.S. provides India with civilian nuclear fuel and technology, even though India has refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
SIMON: That of course was negotiated by the administration, I guess a number of months ago, and passed by a big margin, didn't it?
WELNA: It did indeed. It required congressional approval and it's finally gotten it now.
SIMON: Senate also this week confirmed Robert Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary.
WELNA: That's right, Scott. Only two senators, both of them Republicans, voted against Gate's nomination. I think there is a pretty bipartisan consensus now that things have gone desperately wrong in Iraq, and there's hope Gates can ride to the rescue. And to get a sense of how much the political landscape seems to be shifting now on Iraq, I wanted to play an excerpt from a pretty noteworthy and unexpected floor speech given the other night by Senator Gordon Smith. He's a fairly conservative Republican from Oregon who strongly supported President Bush's invasion of Iraq, but on Thursday night Smith said cut and run or cut and walk, it was time to get out.
Senator GORDON SMITH (Republican, Oregon): And I for one am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that anymore.
SIMON: And before we leave you, David, the House ethics panel, forgive me, delivered its findings on the Mark Foley scandal. And Mr. Foley, of course, is accused of sending salacious electronic messages to former congressional pages. Anything new in that report?
WELNA: Well, Scott, this was a probe that was not so much about what Foley did as it was about how some very senior House Republicans handled reports of Foley's misbehavior. The real focus, in fact, was on the outgoing Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert. And the panel's final report says two other top Republicans told Hastert about the Foley problem months before it became public on the last day Congress met before the elections. And Hastert said he simply doesn't recall those warnings, so while the panel decided no lawmakers had actually broken any House ethics rules, at the same time, as two Democratic and two Republican members said, that people had been willfully ignorant of the potential consequences.
SIMON: David Welna.
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