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Congress returns to reams of work

Members of Congress are returning from Independence Day celebrations with a substantial to-do list.

They must figure out how to allocate money for government programs next year while fulfilling promises of prescription drug coverage for older people and tax rebates to poorer families with children.

Also on the agenda are multibillion-dollar proposals to repair highways, curtail asbestos lawsuits so companies and people harmed by the product are helped and make medical malpractice insurance more affordable.

With the 2004 political season just over the horizon, Republicans are intent on taking a potent issue away from Democrats by creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Democrats will try to show that the GOP's relentless pursuit of tax cuts has translated into a soaring budget deficit, with little money for education, health care, African AIDS victims and protection from international terror.

Republican leaders will be motivated to get a child credit bill to President Bush before Congress leaves for its August recess.

The government starts this month mailing rebate checks of up to $400 per child to millions of middle-class families. The House and Senate have passed legislation to let minimum-wage families get the credit later, but the bills differ significantly in their details.

Congress could send legislation to the president this month that would ban a late-term abortion procedure. Republicans have tried to enact the measure since they won a House majority in 1995. President Clinton twice vetoed it; Bush is eager to sign it.

A political priority for GOP leaders in both chambers is a Medicare drug benefit with a larger role for private insurance companies in the federal health program.

The House and the Senate, in the final hours before leaving last month, passed $400-billion bills to accomplish that goal. Compromise on the bills could come slowly.

The House bill passed 216-215 only after GOP leaders persuaded several members of their party to change their votes.

Conservatives objected to creating an entitlement program without subjecting Medicare to more competition from the private sector. Democrats who helped write the Senate bill do not want to privatize Medicare and reject provisions in the House bill that link drug benefits to income levels and establish medical savings accounts.

"This is one of the more complicated bills that we've had probably before the Congress in a decade, and we need to do it right," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said. "We need to take our time."

Much of the work on 13 spending bills for the budget year starting Oct. 1 will get done this month. At play is $785-billion, from a $2.2-trillion budget, that does not go for automatically paid benefits such as Social Security and Medicare.

GOP majorities are slim in both houses, which leaves little room for maneuver. Democrats are demanding more for social and homeland security programs they say are being shortchanged because of the 10-year, $350-billion tax relief package Congress passed in May.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said the Senate's first business will be a bill to limit medical malpractice awards. As in previous years, that measure appears doomed.

In March, the House capped noneconomic damages from malpractice suits at $250,000. But many Senate Democrats oppose caps, and supporters of the limitation appear well short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

Democrats will continue to use their filibuster powers to block confirmation of two federal appeals court judicial nominees they say are too conservative.

The Senate will take another shot in July at a major energy bill that has been on and off the floor since May. The plan is intended to reduce dependency on foreign energy through increased production and conservation.

Last year the Senate worked nearly two months on an energy bill that never made it out of Congress. About 350 amendments are pending.

Democrats are applying pressure on GOP leaders to expand the child tax credit in the May tax relief package to include lower-income families that do not pay income tax.

The Senate passed a $10-billion tax credit bill to be financed by renewing customs fees. The House approved a larger and unpaid-for $82-billion bill to extend the child credit through the decade and make it available to wealthy couples.