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Congress Races to Bills; Sue Prez      07/31 07:06

   Congress is racing to wrap up legislation addressing chronic problems at the 
Veterans Affairs Department and a shortfall in highway money ahead of its 
five-week summer break. Deep divisions cast doubt on any resolution to the 
surge of immigrants at the border.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congress is racing to wrap up legislation addressing 
chronic problems at the Veterans Affairs Department and a shortfall in highway 
money ahead of its five-week summer break. Deep divisions cast doubt on any 
resolution to the surge of immigrants at the border.

   The institutional split of a Republican-led House and Democratic-controlled 
Senate has added up to inaction, especially in a midterm election year with 
control of the Senate at stake. In the final days before leaving Washington, 
lawmakers have struggled to compromise on a handful of bills to deal with the 
nation's pressing problems amid overwhelming partisanship.

   Congress is poised to send President Barack Obama legislation revamping the 
VA, with a Senate vote expected Thursday. Lawmakers also are working on a path 
forward for highway and transit projects.

   The legislative effort came against the backdrop of a partisan House vote to 
sue Obama for unilateral changes in his signature health care law. Republicans 
accused him of shredding the Constitution, while Democrats described the vote 
as a veiled attempt at impeachment.

   The near party-line vote on Wednesday was 225-201.

   Traveling in Missouri, Obama scolded congressional Republicans for wasting 
time on a lawsuit rather than legislative action.

   "Stop being mad all the time. Stop just hating all the time. Come on," the 
president said in a speech in Kansas City.

   House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House vote was about defending 
the Constitution, "and acting decisively when it may be compromised."

   The Senate was poised to wrap up a sweeping, $16.3 billion bill to overhaul 
the scandal-plagued VA after reports of patients dying while awaiting treatment 
and long delays in scheduling appointments.

   Two weeks ago, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars 
delivered an ultimatum to Congress: "Pass a bill or don't come back from 
recess." Lawmakers listened, as the agency provides health care to nearly 9 
million enrolled veterans and disability compensation to nearly 4 million 
veterans.

   The House overwhelmingly approved the bill, 420-5, on Wednesday and an 
equally decisive vote was expected in the Senate.

   The measure includes $10 billion in emergency spending to help veterans who 
can't get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care; $5 
billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff; and about $1.3 billion 
to lease 27 new clinics across the country.

   Determined to help Israel amid weeks of deadly fighting in Gaza with Hamas, 
the House and Senate also were expected to approve $225 million for Israel's 
Iron Dome missile defense system that intercepts short-range rockets and 
mortars.

   Support for Israel is strongly bipartisan in Congress. Immigration, on the 
other hand, causes sharp splits.

   The House moved toward a vote Thursday on a $659 million measure that would 
allow migrant youths to be sent home more quickly and would dispatch National 
Guard troops to the border.

   Although the White House has backed legal changes to speed deportation of 
the kids, the administration said the House bill "could make the situation 
worse, not better," by setting arbitrary timelines that could create backlogs 
and hurt due process.

   A companion bill was being offered in the House to satisfy conservatives 
eager to see Obama blocked on immigration. It would prevent the president from 
expanding an existing program that's granted work permits to more than 500,000 
immigrants brought to this country illegally as kids and allowed them to stay 
here without threat of deportation.

   The Senate's version of the bill --- a $3.5 billion package that also 
includes money for Western wildfires and Israel --- faces opposition from 
Republicans and some Democrats, who argue the measure amounts to a blank check 
for Obama with no policy changes.

   With a day left before the government plans to start reducing federal 
highway aid payments to states, legislation to keep the money flowing was hung 
up over a disagreement between the House and Senate over timing and how to pay 
for the measure.

   Democrats were increasingly optimistic they had the leverage to force 
Boehner to allow a vote on a bill that passed the Senate 79-18 Tuesday. That 
bill would fund highway and transit aid through mid-December, when supporters 
hope Congress will come to grips with the chronic funding problems that have 
plagued transportation programs in recent years.

   Boehner has threatened to strip the bill of the Senate's changes and send it 
back to the Senate in the form the House initially passed over a week ago. It 
wasn't clear Wednesday that he had the votes to do that.

   Since then, "a much better bill has come out of the Senate in a strong, 
bipartisan vote," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., 
said. "I would do everything possible to make sure we wind up passing the 
better law, which is the Senate bill."

   The Transportation Department has said that by Friday the trust fund will no 
longer have enough money to cover promised aid and states should expect an 
average reduction of 28 percent in aid payments.   


(KA)


 
 
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