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109th Congress ends with rush

The 109th session of Congress, frustrated by partisanship, ended with flurry of bill passing and promises of change when Democrats take over the House and Senate in January.

Before the predawn finish Saturday, departing House Speaker Dennis Hastert acknowledged that after eight years, the longest stretch for a Republican in the job, he will welcome a return to the rank and file. "On Jan. 4, I will be privileged to rejoin you on these benches where my heart is," he said,

The Illinois Republican will be succeeded on that day by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She becomes the first female speaker and the first Democrat in the post since Newt Gingrich of Georgia led the Republicans to power in 1995.

Pelosi says the new Democratic era will get off to a quick start with votes to raise the federal minimum wage, enact lobbying and ethics reform and lower Medicare prescription drug costs.

As often is the case in the waning hours, the congressional session ended with a rush to deal with untended business.

In the long final day, ending about 4:40 a.m. in the Senate, the two chambers passed a huge tax and trade bill, prevented the government from shutting down and approved dozens of other bills.

They included an important fisheries management measure; a bill allowing civilian nuclear technology transfers to India; and bills to fund programs to combat AIDS, pandemic diseases and premature births.

As one of its final acts, Congress approved a stopgap measure keeping federal programs running at or slightly below current levels through Feb. 15. President Bush signed it into law.

The action was necessary because lawmakers failed to pass the annual spending bills covering the budget year that began Oct. 1, except those dealing with defense and homeland security. The tax measure revived about 20 tax breaks, at a cost of $38-billion over five years, and a dozen credits promoting alternative and efficient uses of energy.

It extended through the end of 2007 a deduction for research and development initiatives, and renewed a deduction of up to $4,000 for higher education costs. There were breaks for teachers who pay for supplies out of their own pockets and for taxpayers in nine states with no income taxes - allowing them to deduct state and local sales taxes.

The popular tax breaks became a magnet for contentious and expensive bills. The package included legislation to open 8.3-million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling and to prevent a 5 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors from taking effect Jan. 1.

The legislation also contained measures to permanently normalize trade with Vietnam and extend trade benefits for four Andean nations, sub-Saharan African countries and Haiti.

The bill also renewed, with increased federal contributions, a program dealing with abandoned coal mines and the health issues of former miners.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said the legislation would shift $4-billion in health care costs from the coal companies to the taxpayers, and criticized his own party for failing to check federal spending.

The next House majority leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., says there will be a return to five-day workweeks. In the Senate, incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he and new Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have agreed that all 100 senators will hold a private session on Jan. 4 to kick off what they hope will be a new era of civility and less partisanship.

Republicans can, however, point to some major accomplishments this year: passing a pension overhaul; renewing the Patriot Act; enacting a port security bill; and endorsing Bush's plans to create military commissions to prosecute suspected terrorists.

But this Congress could not move ahead on lobbying and ethics changes; failed to reach a consensus on the administration's eavesdropping program; and did not develop a plan to deal with the 12-million illegal immigrants in the country.