Nation & World

Congress heads into contentious final three weeks

WASHINGTON — Congress returns Monday for its three-week sprint to adjournment, and Washington state lawmakers expect a rough-and-tumble session with some warning of a possible government shutdown unless deals can be cut on offshore oil drilling and spending.

The congressional delegation is also working to extend the state sales tax deduction, which has saved Washington residents between $350 million and $500 million annually on their federal returns, and to ensure Boeing has another shot at a $35 billion contract for Air Force aerial refueling tankers.

The sales tax deduction expired at the end of 2007 and will not apply to 2008 taxes unless Congress acts to extend it. The sales tax extension is just one of several that is lumped in a tax extenders bill currently bottled up in the Senate in a dispute over how to pay for the loss in revenue. Congress has always extended the tax deduction at the last minute, once when the IRS had already published the tax forms.

"We've seen this movie before," said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash.,

With the election looming, the final weeks of the congressional session are expected to be politically supercharged.

"It's going to be fast and furious," Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem, where he was attending a counterterrorism conference.

"There will be some tough negotiating," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash. "It will be a long three weeks."

Even before Congress' August recess, Republicans demanded the existing ban on drilling along the nation's outer continental shelf be lifted. At first Democrats refused, but with public pressure mounting they now appear ready to accept limited drilling in exchange for some of their energy priorities, which Republicans have repeatedly blocked.

While an energy package hasn't been written yet, Democrats likely will push for it to include an extension of tax credits for alternative energy developers and an end to tax breaks for the oil industry. They also might include a windfall profits tax on oil companies and new regulations to rein in speculation in the energy markets.

When it comes to offshore drilling, the Democrats will try to limit it to the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, allow individual states to block drilling off their coasts, impose stricter environmental regulations and perhaps even raise the royalties paid the federal government.

The current moratorium on offshore drilling expires Sept. 30.

Republicans are demanding a standalone bill that would simply open all offshore lands to drilling, along with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"I believe proposals to drill for more oil and gas would pass and I will keep pushing until those who control Congress allow a vote," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who returned to Washington, D.C., late last week to participate in a five-week-old, Republican pro-drilling talk-a-thon on the House floor.

But not all Republicans agree, including Washington Rep. Dave Reichert, who is locked in a close race for re-election in the state's 8th Congressional District. Reichert said developing alternative sources of energy, including wind and solar, should be the nation's top priority.

"Alternatives are much more important than drilling," said Reichert, adding that unfortunately the debate has become too partisan. "Any energy bill will be filled with all kinds of little pitfalls. There will be a lot of political language designed to trap members up for re-election. That's the sad part."

Reichert, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., and others said that if Republicans don't get a what they want, President Bush could veto a must-pass, stopgap funding bill needed to keep the government operating when the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Known as a continuing resolution, or CR, Reichert said it is Bush's leverage in the energy debate. Dicks' agreed.

"It's going to be difficult to get a CR the president can sign," Dicks said.

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, one of the Democratic leaders on energy issues, said Congress faces a "Rubik's Cube" of issues as it moves toward adjournment.

"I'm not saying we can't get an energy bill," said Cantwell. "But right now a lot of people are just thumping their chests."

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to consider a defense spending bill that includes a provision Dicks said would allow Boeing to compete on a "level playing field" when it comes to the tanker contract.

Each lawmaker also has items they would like to see passed as the end of session nears. Larsen wants a second economic stimulus package that would include infrastructure improvements and an expanded food stamp program. Smith would like to see Congress pass not only a defense spending bill, but a military construction and a veterans affairs bill. Hastings and Reichert want Congress to act on the Colombia and South Korea free trade agreements. And Baird said Congress needs to address the problems of independent truck drivers, including log truck drivers, who are being squeezed by high diesel prices.

In fact, Baird said, the issues are so pressing that he has asked House leadership to extend the session until a week before the November election and then have Congress come back after the election. He hasn't heard back.