by William Fisher
(IPS) NEW YORK -- If President George W. Bush had high hopes of resuscitating his second term in office this month, he is likely to be disappointed by growing bipartisan opposition to many of his policy initiatives and the challenges of completing the leftover work of the last session of Congress.
The president had hoped Congress would approve a number of his signature measures before members adjourned for the Christmas recess. These include the permanent extension of the USA Patriot Act, renewal of his previous tax cuts and the so-called deficit reduction cuts.
But the House and Senate could not agree and left town with these and other legislative issues unresolved. Dealing with these issues will represent a political tsunami for the president, whose job-approval numbers have plummeted since his reelection in 2004.
Added to his challenges will be several new ones, including hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee on his use of secret warrantless wiretaps by the Pentagon's National Security Agency (NSA).
Topping off the list of contentious issues Bush will face when Congress returns in January will be the confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel Alito, his response to Congressional calls for periodic reports on progress in the Iraq war, his "guest worker" proposal to curb illegal immigration, and the continuing debate over the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina.
Only one of these issues was unanticipated: the NSA's secret interception of telephone conversations and email exchanges involving U.S. citizens. That story exploded just before Christmas due to revelations published in the New York Times, and then carried by media outlets throughout the world.
The full extent of the secret program is not yet clear, but the president has defended his actions as necessary to protect national security, and his legal authority as stemming from his constitutional role as commander-in-chief and the Congressional resolution authorising him to use force to combat terrorism.
But Congress -- which zealously seeks to protect its power as one of the three equal branches of government -- will want to know why he chose not to use the special court it established in the late 1970s for the sole purpose of issuing warrants authorising electronic and other types of surveillance.
The court, known as the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court, has approved some 18,000 surveillance requests since its inception, while refusing or modifying only a handful.
Sen. Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania and chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee, has promised to convene hearings on the wiretap issue when Congress returns. No date has yet been set by Specter, a member of Bush's own party.
The issue of executive versus legislative versus judicial branch power is also expected to be much in evidence when the Alito confirmation hearings begin before Sen. Specter's committee on Jan. 9. Senators will attempt to probe Judge Alito's views on this issue as well as on what most legal experts believe is the other key issue facing the nominee: a woman's right to choose to have an abortion.
Alito has served as a federal judge for the past 15 years and has a long paper trail of cases and opinions. Before his appointment to the bench, he served in the Reagan administration.
Judiciary Committee members are currently combing through thousands of documents from both periods, as are dozens of left- and right-leaning advocacy groups poised to wage all-out war to win Alito's confirmation or defeat. If confirmed, Alito would replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is retiring. O'Connor has often been the swing vote in five-to-four Supreme Court decisions.
Both houses of Congress have been considering reauthorization of the Patriot Act for the past year. The law was hurriedly past six weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with only one senator, Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, voting against it because it did not contain sufficient civil liberties safeguards.
The law gave U.S. law enforcement agencies sweeping new tools to combat terrorism, but because of the civil liberties issue, some of its more controversial provisions were given a limited life of four years, after which they would need to be reauthorized.
Just before Christmas, a conference committee of the House and Senate agreed on a compromise version of their two respective bills that would have resulted in reauthorization, but most Democratic and a few Republican senators continued to press for further civil liberties protections, while the Bush administration pushed for permanent reauthorization of the entire law.
As time ran out, the two houses left the final version of the law unresolved and instead extended it for five weeks, until February. The issue is expected to take center stage in both houses when they return from the holiday break.
Also close to center stage in the new session of Congress will be the illegal immigration issue. The president has proposed a "guest worker" program that would enable new immigrants to gain temporary legal status and also provide the same process for millions people already living in the U.S. but who entered illegally.
The Bush plan has drawn fierce opposition from members of his own party, mostly in the House of Representatives, who propose a far more hard-line approach.
Pending legislation in both the House and the Senate ranges from giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship to attempting to expel all of them. It is doubtful that, facing Congressional elections this year, hard-liners are likely to soften their approach.
The immigration issue has put ordinarily pro-business conservative Republicans in an unusual conflict with employers who want to continue to take advantage of undocumented immigrants willing to work for wages far below the U.S. norm.
Congress also left town leaving the so-called deficit reduction process in limbo. Pending legislation would cut funding for education grants, health care for poor families, and other social benefits. At the same time, it failed to make permanent the Bush tax cuts due to expire in 2010.
The money represented by the tax cuts -- which favor the wealthiest U.S. citizens -- far exceeds the cuts in social programs, primarily designed to benefit the least wealthy. If both measures are passed in their current form, they would increase rather than reduce the current deficit -- the largest in U.S. history.
And, as if these challenges weren't daunting enough, the president faces two other potentially explosive issues. The Senate has promized to complete its report examining whether the administration lied or exaggerated or otherwise misused intelligence to help it make a case for the invasion of Iraq. And Congress has demanded quarterly progress reports from the administration on the war in Iraq, with specific benchmarks to measure success.
Many of these issues will have played out by the time the president delivers his annual State of the Union message to Congress at the end of January.
On the heels of the president's failure to persuade the country and the Congress to "reform" the social security program last year, the unpredictable and increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, and flashback images of government incompetence in handling the Katrina disaster, veteran Congress-watchers do not believe the president has the political capital, or that Congress has the political will, to embrace the kind of bold, sweeping agenda Bush proposed in his State of the Union message following his reelection in 2004.
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