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Congress' controversial votes on hold until after the election

Congress' Republican leaders are postponing politically thorny votes on overtime, imported prescription drugs and other issues until after the November elections.

GOP leaders say they are not motivated by a desire to sidestep difficult showdowns on disputes, some of which have pitted Republicans against each other or drawn veto threats from President Bush. With the House and Senate aiming to adjourn Oct. 8 for the presidential and congressional campaigns, they say they are simply running out of time.

"You're creating a story that ain't there," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Wednesday.

Democrats say the GOP wants to avoid election-season votes on delicate issues like raising the federal debt limit, lifting trade restrictions with Cuba, and financing veterans' health care.

"They don't want to vote on them, they want to duck them," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.

Whatever the motivation, the political impact is significant.

Republicans will avoid difficult pre-election votes _ or embarrassing fights with the White House _ over issues as diverse as overtime pay, highway spending and Bush's plans to give civil service jobs to private contractors.

Democrats were hoping for a pre-election debate on increasing the government's borrowing ceiling so they could use it to highlight the record budget deficits of recent years.

But it appears that although the current $7.4-trillion debt limit is about to be breached, the Treasury Department will be able to use accounting maneuvers to keep paying government liabilities. Congress probably won't address that issue until mid November, say GOP aides.

Many of the disputes are embedded in the spending bills Congress was supposed to complete by this Friday, when the government's new budget year begins.

Only one of the 13 bills _ the one financing the Pentagon _ has become law, though four or five others might be completed before lawmakers leave to campaign. Those include measures financing the Homeland Security Department and providing at least the additional $10.2-billion Bush wants to help Florida and other states recover from four recent hurricanes.

To keep federal agencies functioning, the House voted 389-32 Wednesday to keep the government open until Nov. 20 at current spending levels. The Senate passed the measure by voice vote.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Largo, said he hoped a House-Senate compromise on the remaining spending measures would be ready for lawmakers to approve when they return to the Capitol in mid November.

The bills probably will be lumped together into a giant package exceeding $300-billion. That could produce a measure so popular leaders could discard many controversial items, possibly including language that would block new Bush administration rules that it says will modernize overtime regulations.

Critics say the rules will deny time-and-a-half bonus pay to millions of workers. Ignoring a veto threat, the Senate Appropriations Committees and the full House voted to block the overtime rules, with Democrats joined by moderate Republicans from states with a strong labor presence.