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Energy, war seen topping congressional agenda

Lawmakers face record budget deficits

Lawmakers will try to to complete the 13 spending bills to fund the federal government when they return next week.
Lawmakers will try to to complete the 13 spending bills to fund the federal government when they return next week.

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Record high gasoline prices, an unprecedented power blackout and worries about the cost of occupation and reconstruction of Iraq are among the issues that will dominate the congressional agenda when lawmakers return next week from their August break.

Lawmakers will also face record budget deficits as they try to deliver a promised Medicare prescription drug benefit for the elderly and struggle to complete the 13 spending bills to fund the federal government amid signs that President Bush will seek more money for Iraq.

"As I see it, everything is on the upside for additional spending," said a senior Senate Republican leadership aide.

With concern growing that time is running out to keep Iraq from sliding into chaos, Congress will likely debate whether to pour more money and troops into the stabilization effort, and whether to push for greater international participation.

"I don't think there was the expectation that the United States was going to have to foot the bill as much as it looks like it is now," said Candice Nelson, director of the Campaign Management Institute at American University in Washington.

Bush may ask Congress to provide an additional $2 billion over the short term for Iraq and some congressional sources expect a push for an emergency spending bill for Iraq of $20 billion or more this year instead of waiting until next year.

The August blackout that left millions of Americans and Canadians without power and record high gasoline prices appear to have breathed new life into an energy bill that many people thought would languish amid partisan fights over how best to curb the nation's appetite for foreign oil.

Focus on energy

The Republican-led House passed an energy bill that depends heavily on increased domestic oil and gas production. It must be reconciled with a Democrat-written Senate bill that relies more on conservation and renewable energy.

The Republican-controlled Senate passed the bill in order to break a logjam that threatened to derail the legislation.

Both versions include about $18 billion in energy tax incentives over 10 years, but deep partisan differences remain over a Republican push in the House bill to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling.

Bush is expected to push lawmakers to deliver a promised prescription drug benefit for the elderly under Medicare. The House and the Senate have passed separate versions of the legislation and now have to work out differences before giving Bush a major expansion of the Medicare health program to sign.

Despite some significant differences, both bills would give seniors the option of staying in traditional Medicare and then buying a new "drugs only" policy that would partially cover their costs.

Or they could choose from an expanded menu of private managed-care plans, not all currently available in Medicare, to get all their health care, including drugs.

Congress also has to act on business tax legislation if the United States is to avoid a trade war with the European Union over a U.S. export tax subsidy the World Trade Organization says violates world trade rules.

The EU could hit U.S. goods with some $4 billion in punitive tariffs if Congress fails to repeal the tax break for exporters. But lawmakers disagree on how to use the revenues from ending the tax break.

The Senate may also take up legislation to curb class-action lawsuits by moving most of them from state to federal courts, where judges may be less sympathetic.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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