The 108th Congress: A Road Map for Unfinished Business

Posted December 5, 2003 at 11:47am


Legislation Description Status Hurdles
Fiscal 2004 omnibus spending bill The bill would provide $820 billion to fund 11 of the 15 Cabinet departments (Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, State, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Transportation, Treasury, Veterans Affairs, and Housing and Urban Development) as well as numerous independent agencies and the District of Columbia government. The House plans to press a vote on the measure as early as today, but Senate action is unlikely until January. Senate Democrats have demanded extended debate on the bill because they object to the elimination of several House- and Senate-approved policy riders that would have prevented the Bush administration from going forward with rules to expand media ownership, change overtime pay and outsource more federal jobs. Some Senate Republicans also object on the grounds that the bill contains too much pork. Those objections appear to have thwarted Senate GOP leadership plans to send the bill to the president this week. A stop-gap spending bill to keep the government running at last year’s funding levels expires Jan. 31.
Welfare reauthorization and overhaul The bill would reauthorize and update the 1996 welfare-to-work law, which required states to move people on welfare into jobs. It would also provide money for state-run marriage-promotion programs, require states to increase by 20 percent the number of people moving off their welfare rolls and into work, and reduce the amount of federal money states get if they do not meet new standards. The House passed its version, which would increase the work requirement for most welfare-to-work participants from 30 hours a week to 40 hours. The Senate version, which has passed the Finance Committee, would require states to increase the number of hours some welfare-to-work participants spend in “working activities” from 30 hours to 34 hours a week. Democrats and some moderate Republicans have held the bill up in the Senate because they say federal child care funding is not sufficient to match the new stringent work requirements, which they say will keep parents out of the home for longer periods of time. Democrats also worry that the bill’s marriage-promotion aspects could pressure single mothers into potentially abusive marriages. Both chambers passed a temporary extension of current law that expires March 31.
Highway bill The bill would provide funding over six years for transportation improvement projects, such as interstate highways, secondary roads, light rails, subway systems and transportation safety. The House version would provide $375 billion over six years for transportation projects but does not yet include the mechanisms for funding the bill, which is nearly $128 billion more than President Bush requested. The Senate Environment and Public Works panel has approved its $222 billion portion for highway projects. But the Senate Finance and Banking, Housing and Urban Development panels still must act on their respective revenue and mass-transit portions. Transportation authorizers have been fighting among themselves over how to pay for the massive bill. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) has advocated increasing the gas tax but has met stiff resistance from House GOP leaders and the Bush administration. The Senate bill has also been held up over questions of how to pay for it. A temporary extension of current funding rules expires Feb. 29.
Amendment banning gay marriage The measure would amend the Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Conservative Republicans in both chambers have introduced versions of the amendment, which may impact whether states can have laws recognizing civil unions. Neither House nor Senate GOP leaders have indicated they would like to bring it up, but conservatives have vowed to pressure their leadership for floor consideration.
Faith-based initiative The bill would expand tax breaks for charitable giving. Both chambers passed different versions of the bill, which comprises the remaining items in Bush’s so-called faith-based initiative. Bush used executive orders to expand federal grants for social programs to religious organizations. Senate Democrats have blocked GOP attempts to send the bill to conference with the House as part of a protest against being excluded from most conference negotiations on other bills.
International corporate tax bill The bill would repeal corporate tax breaks that violate World Trade Organization rules and replace them with other phased-in corporate tax credits. Both the Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee approved different versions of the bill in October. Without action on the measure, the European Union has threatened trade sanctions on the United States. That has created some urgency among lawmakers to get the bill done, but divisions in the House over the scope of the bill and its impact on the manufacturing sector have held up action on the House floor. Senate action appears held up more by scheduling difficulties than anything else.
“Unborn” victims bill The bill would create federal penalties for crimes against pregnant women that injure the fetus. A House subcommittee has approved the bill. The Senate has yet to act. Abortion-rights advocates oppose the measure, saying it is a back-handed way for abortion opponents to get the federal government to recognize a fetus as a person. But it’s unclear if abortion-rights supporters in the House and Senate have the votes to block passage.
Pension overhaul The bill would overhaul pension funding processes and allow people to put more money into tax-free retirement savings. The Ways and Means Committee approved its version during a raucous markup in which Capitol Police officers were called to evict Democrats from the committee’s library room. Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) has promised to hold another less controversial markup. The Senate has yet to act on its version. A temporary measure to revise pension funding rules is expected to be either attached to the omnibus or passed separately this week, because the current pension funding formula expires at the end of the year. Action on the broader pension overhaul bill is more dubious, however, as lawmakers and the administration argue about the best way to help shore up pension longevity.
Cloning ban The bill would outlaw efforts to clone a human embryo. The House passed its version in February, but the Senate has yet to act on its substantially similar measure. Divisions among Republicans have prevented the bill from coming to the Senate floor. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), wants to ban the creation of cloned human embryos; Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) wants to ban the creation of a cloned human, while allowing research on cloned human embryo cells.
Energy bill The bill would create a national energy policy that emphasizes more production to meet the country’s rising energy needs, encourage the use of the corn-based fuel additive ethanol, restrict the use of another fuel additive known as MTBE, provide nearly $26 billion in tax credits to energy companies for various activities, and restructure the electricity industry. The conference report, which both House and Senate negotiators agreed to in mid-November, passed the House, but Senate GOP leaders lost a cloture vote in the Senate. A coalition of Senate Democrats, GOP fiscal conservatives and New England lawmakers have vowed to continue their filibuster of the bill, which they complain does not do enough to promote energy conservation and would increase the federal budget deficit. Still, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has said he will try to revive the bill in 2004 by looking for two Senators who might change their votes and give him the 60 he needs to break the filibuster.
Internet taxation bill The bill would permanently ban federal, state and local taxation of Internet connections such as dial-up or broadband service. The House passed its bill. The Senate has yet to act. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and other former governors in the Senate have been blocking the bill from becoming law, saying it could actually roll back some taxes states and localities already levy on telecommunications services. Negotiations with the bill’s chief Senate proponent, George Allen (R-Va.), have produced little results, and the measure has been put off until 2004.
Genetic nondiscrimination bill The bill would prohibit insurance companies and employers from using genetic information to deny benefits to people. The Senate passed its version in October. The House has not yet acted on its version. Though the Bush administration supports the Senate bill, House GOP leaders have been reluctant to bring the measure up, because it falls under the jurisdiction of several committees and is being aggressively opposed by insurance companies and business groups, who say the bill is premature.
Mental health parity bill The bill would require health insurers that already offer coverage for mental illness to institute the same co-payments, deductibles and access for mental health care that is currently afforded for physical maladies. Neither the House nor Senate has brought up its version of the bill. Originally pushed by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the bill has become a cause célèbre since Wellstone’s October 2002 death. Republicans objected to Senate Democratic attempts to move the bill on the anniversary of Wellstone’s death in 2003, and House GOP leaders have long been reluctant to take up the measure.
Victims’ rights amendment The measure would create a set of rights under the Constitution for crime victims, including the right of adequate notice of public proceedings regarding the crime and the ability to be heard at public release, sentencing and other hearings on the accused. The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved its version, but the House has yet to schedule any action on the measure. The Senate is most likely to act first on the constitutional amendment, which must be passed by two-thirds of each chamber and approved by three-fourths of the 50 state legislatures.
Mutual funds reform The bill would require greater disclosure of mutual fund fees and expenses and would order that boards of directors be mostly independent. The bill would also curb short-term trading by mutual fund managers. The House passed its version Nov. 19. Similar bills have been introduced in the Senate but have not moved, though Senate Banking Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has indicated he’s willing to take up legislation next year. The SEC has adopted similar rules. Mutual fund trade groups have lobbied heavily against greater restrictions, noting that late trading is already illegal and saying they would prefer the industry adopt voluntary standards and self-regulate.
Medical malpractice bill The bill would cap punitive damages and pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice suits. The House passed its version March 13. Similar legislation was blocked in the Senate on July 9 when backers could not get cloture and could not shut off debate. Senate leaders are expected to file for cloture again next year. As part of the general opposition to tort reform, Senate Democrats have already blocked the bill once and have vowed to do so again if GOP leaders try to bring it up again.
Tax cuts House leaders would like to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent, starting with those set to expire in 2005. No legislation has been acted on. House leaders say it’s a top priority, but moderate Republicans in the Senate and Democrats have repeatedly objected to any more tax cuts that increase the federal deficit.

— Compiled by Emily Pierce and Nicole Duran