Congress Approves 700-Mile Border Fence The Senate on Friday night approved the construction of a 700-mile-long barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border, before recessing for the midterm-election campaign break. Congress also passed guidelines for trying and treating detainees, but it left several other key bills unfinished.
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Congress Approves 700-Mile Border Fence

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Congress Approves 700-Mile Border Fence

Congress Approves 700-Mile Border Fence

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Both the House and Senate stayed in session until the wee hours today racing to finish key bills before leaving to campaign. Republicans would like to keep focused on national security and the threat of terrorism, but there were a couple of major distractions yesterday. One, a new book by Bob Woodward titled State of Denial that portrays President Bush as refusing to acknowledge the severity of the insurgency in Iraq and details White House infighting over the conduct of the war.

The other distraction: the sudden resignation of Republican Congressman Mark Foley of Florida. He quit after revelations of electronically transmitted sexual overtures he'd made to young male pages who'd worked at the Capitol. We'll have story on that in a few minutes, but first to talk about Congress we're joined by NPR Congressional correspondent David Welna. David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID WELNA: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And let's start with what the Congress did in its final hours.

WELNA: Well, I'd say the most significant thing Congress did yesterday was it gave its final blessing to new rules for trying detainees in Guantanamo and possibly other places, which the Supreme Court had told it to come up with after the court in June threw out the system that the White House had devised. And Congress also backed guidelines for interrogating those detainees that leave the president a lot of leeway in determining what's acceptable and what's not. Now, the other big marquee item Congress went out on was the Senate last night gave final approval to a plan that House Republicans had been pushing very hard. It would put up 700 miles of fencing along the Mexican border over Mexico's objections. And maybe more significantly that bill gives Republican lawmakers who promised to crack down on illegal immigration something to run on in a year when not much else got done on immigration.

SIMON: But did they authorize the money to pay for that?

WELNA: No. The - only about a fifth of the six billion dollars that fence is going to cost has actually been appropriated by Congress.

SIMON: Well, 'cause this raised the question that a new fiscal year begins for the federal government tomorrow. Did the Congress approve the bills that are necessary to pay for the functioning of government?

WELNA: Well, they got just two of them done. And Republicans are touting both as protecting national security, their big theme for the month. One was the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill, and the other was the annual Pentagon spending bill, which adds $70 billion in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that brings the total tab for those wars up to more than half a trillion dollars now. And despite a couple of major bribery scandals last year, that bill was larded with earmarks, you know, spending on projects that the Pentagon didn't ask for but which can be very useful for lawmakers whose districts get those defense contracts.

And just so we don't have a government shutdown tomorrow, there's also a rider on that bill that says all the other federal spending that did not get renewed will simply continue at the last fiscal year's level until shortly before Thanksgiving, when lawmakers come back for a lame duck session. And they'll probably wrap up all of those unfinished bills at that time into one big fat, very difficult and hard to properly scrutinize spending bill that's known as an omnibus.

SIMON: Democrats have been calling this the do-nothing Congress, rather as Harry Truman famously drubbed the 1948 session a do-nothing Congress. Is there anything that we've overlooked in the welter of all the campaign talk?

WELNA: Well, one other thing that they did get done yesterday was they passed a port security bill, although protections for mass transit that had been in the bill were stripped out. But added to the bill was a rider that bans credit card companies from doing business with Internet gambling sites, whatever that has to do with port security.

SIMON: Recount for us once again, David, what the Republicans did that might - that might bolster the campaign theme they want to emphasize of being the national security party.

WELNA: Well, you know, they'll be able to point to the border fence bill, the military and homeland spending bills and the military tribunal bill as accomplishments. But they failed to get a compromise approving the warrantless surveillance program that's been carried up at the National Security Agency, something that the White House very much wanted from Congress this September. And Democrats, meanwhile, did their best to keep the war in Iraq front and center, because that's what they plan to campaign on this coming October.

SIMON: NPR's Congressional correspondent, David Welna, thanks very much.

WELNA: You're welcome Scott.

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