Economy, War Top Agenda as Congress Returns

Congress is back to work on Capitol Hill, and lawmakers have a busy agenda filled with plans to address the housing crisis and make another attempt to force a change in direction in the Iraq war.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Congress has a long to-do list for this spring, and the president has some ideas on what he wants lawmakers to do. Mr. Bush is in Ukraine today, but before he left town, he urged Congress to act on his agenda, especially on the housing crisis.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Congress needs to pass legislation to modernize the Federal Housing Administration. Struggling homeowners are waiting on Congress to act so that the FHA can help more Americans refinance their mortgages and stay in their homes.

MONTAGNE: And Brian, President Bush asked Congress to act on housing, as we've just heard, as well as one other bill, which has to do with terrorist surveillance. Are lawmakers on the Hill listening to the president?

BRIAN NAYLOR: Not so much. Certainly not on FISA, the terrorist surveillance bill. The House has held pretty firm to its position against what the Bush administration wants. The president has been asking for immunity for the telecommunications companies that gave information to the government after the 9/11 attacks. Those companies have been sued by some groups who want to know basically who is listening to whom.

And the Bush administration says the telecoms have to be protected from those lawsuits, because they say it would endanger national security and make it unlikely that the phone companies would cooperate with the government.

There's been a lot of back and forth on this. Some Democrats have had commercials run in their districts against their position, but they say it's had no affect. They've heard little from voters, and they feel their position against immunity is not only correct but it's politically sound.

So I wouldn't look for a breakthrough on this any time soon. Housing, they're listening, but they have their own ideas. Democrats feel the administration is no one to be lecturing them because they haven't been doing enough to help middle-income homeowners who are facing the possibility of foreclosure.

MONTAGNE: What is the Congress, then, likely to do in the next few weeks?

NAYLOR: Well, the first thing they're going to do is take up this bill in the Senate that would give money for communities to buy and rehab foreclosed homes. But it also contains a controversial provision that would allow bankruptcy court judges to change the terms of mortgages for people facing foreclosure.

That is strongly opposed by the mortgage bankers and the Bush administration. And back in February when this bill first came up, Democrats couldn't muster the 60 votes they needed to move forward on it, but they're going to revisit it this week, and they hope some Republicans have changed their minds.

There's also a new measure that was introduced last month that would let some homeowners facing foreclosure refinance with FHA-backed loans.

MONTAGNE: And then we're heading into another big moment with the war in Iraq.

NAYLOR: And there's going to be a lot of hearings over the next couple of weeks leading up to testimony from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker about the war. They'll be appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee April 8th and a House panel the next day.

The Senate committee includes two of the presidential contenders - Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton. So as you might expect, this is going to be very political. Republicans say it'll give McCain a chance to showcase his national security expertise and share the spotlight with General Petraeus. Democrats say that this is going to be a chance to tie McCain to an unpopular war and allow Clinton to ask some tough questions about when the troops are going to start coming home.

Senator Barack Obama will also get his chance. The Foreign Affairs Committee he sits on also questions Crocker and Petraeus.

MONTAGNE: And talking about the Democrats there, there must be a lot of talk on the Hill these days about superdelegates. Every Democrat in the House and Senate is a superdelegate, and that suddenly looms very large in the Democratic presidential campaign.

NAYLOR: Right. It's an interesting time up here. Obama has a lead among the committed superdelegates in the Senate; Clinton has a slight edge among the House members. But in both chambers, about a third of the superdelegates are uncommitted. And so there are clearly members who are very torn about this.

One congressman from Pennsylvania who is not committed so far to either candidate says he's been getting calls from voters in his district who have taken a side, and they're threatening not to vote for him if he doesn't back their choice. So clearly, there's a lot of angst over this on Capitol Hill.

MONTAGNE: NPR Capitol Hill correspondent Brian Naylor. Thanks very much.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Renee.

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