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As this Congress wraps up, expect some loose ends

Republicans intend to conclude the 109th Congress this week and leave Democrats stuck with the tab in the form of unfinished spending bills, as the days of Republican rule draw to a close on Capitol Hill.

Congressional leaders said election losses had sapped Republican enthusiasm for trying to finish nine spending measures that were due Oct. 1. Congress will instead pass a stopgap measure to keep the government running until mid February, leaving the fiscal tangle for the new Democratic majority to sort out next year.

Republicans, however, will try to record some final accomplishments as they intend to adjourn by Friday. They would like to extend a number of popular tax breaks rather than see Democrats get credit for restoring them next year. House Republicans also plan to try to push through an expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling opportunities and will take a symbolic anti-abortion vote before Democrats, many of whom support abortion rights, take control in January.

On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will convene a hearing on the nomination of Robert Gates to be defense secretary. Members of both parties expect him to be approved by the end of the week to succeed Donald Rumsfeld, unless a serious obstacle emerges in the hearing.

In any event, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader who is stepping down at the end of this Congress, does not intend to keep lawmakers around long.

"Sen. Frist plans to adjourn the 109th Congress by week's end," his office said last week as it laid out a potential agenda.

The resistance to finishing the appropriations bills is not going over well with Democrats, who have accused Republicans of acting irresponsibly. The unfinished business could also prove a distraction for members of the incoming majority who would like to spend the first weeks of 2007 moving ahead with their own agenda rather than cleaning up from 2006.

"They cut and run from the troops by not doing their oversight, and now they are cutting and running from the country by not passing the spending bills," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who will be the chairman of the Democratic caucus next year.

Republicans noted that Democrats failed to finish their spending bills after the 2002 elections gave Republicans control of the Senate.

Republicans struggled throughout the 109th Congress with budget and appropriations measures, caught between conservatives who wanted to hold down spending and more moderate lawmakers who sought to increase investment in health, education and other programs.

Congress this year sent only two of 11 spending bills - those covering the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security - to President Bush, leaving much of the government operating under what is known as a continuing resolution. Senate conservatives have led the opposition to trying to finish the bills, arguing that they do not want to see a flurry of wasteful pet projects inserted into a huge appropriations package that few would be able to decipher. Others said failing to pass the bills would leave agencies unable to deal with new demands like a need for increased veterans care.

Republicans would also like to renew tax breaks like the tuition tax credit, federal income tax deduction for state sales tax, and a business research and development tax credit. Those provisions have been tied up in disputes over other legislation all year.

With an eye on a new Democratic majority that will be less inclined to expand offshore drilling, House Republican leaders have decided to allow a vote on a Senate measure that would open about 8-million acres in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas exploration rather than hold out for a more expansive House bill.

The House approach, which would end long-standing drilling bans along much of the nation's coast, has no chance of approval in the Senate before Congress adjourns. The oil industry and its allies persuaded the House leadership to agree to a vote on the Senate bill as the best chance to win new drilling rights.

"With the results of this past election, this congressional session may be the only chance we have for years to come to produce more oil offshore," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

The House leadership intends to try to win passage of the legislation on Tuesday under an expedited process that limits amendments but requires the approval of two-thirds of those voting; should that fail, they may try to bring the bill back to the floor later in the week with a limit on amendments.

In a concession to abortion opponents, the Republican leadership plans to allow a vote Wednesday on a measure that would require women seeking an abortion to be informed that the procedure could cause pain to the fetus and be given the option of anesthesia for the fetus. The bill is not on the Senate schedule. And it may be the last anti-abortion measure brought to the House floor for some time, since the new Democratic majority strongly backs abortion rights.