Congress takes five weeks off

WASHINGTON — Work in Congress effectively stalled last week in a bitter partisan debate over how to respond to the nation’s energy crisis.

Republicans turned back Democratic efforts to consider bills unrelated to oil and gas drilling. Congress left Washington for a five-week summer recess without passing legislation to combat $4-per-gallon gasoline prices.

GOP senators blocked votes on a shield law for journalists and a measure to extend dozens of popular tax breaks, among others. They insisted the Senate should act instead on ways to increase domestic energy production.

Democrats said Congress’ first move should be to curb rampant speculation and manipulation of the energy futures market. They blamed market speculation for record energy costs.

The stalemate meant Republicans refused to move ahead with a bill loaded with noncontroversial measures crafted to bypass objections by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Among its components, the 35-bill package would have created a registry for victims of Lou Gehrig’s disease, funded paralysis research and strengthened child pornography laws.

Coburn said many of the bills in the package were either too costly or expanded government too much. Democrats countered that Coburn was obstructing otherwise popular measures, some of which would help the disabled.

A procedural vote to begin debate on the package was 52-40. But it needed 60 votes.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted to move forward with the bill. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., voted to block the bill.

The journalist shield law would have protected reporters from having to reveal their sources in most instances in federal court.

President Bush opposed the bill because of national security fears. Bush administration officials worried that prosecutors might be unable to track government leaks. Supporters said that without protection, whistle-blowers might not talk to reporters for fear their identities would be exposed.

A procedural vote to begin debate was 51-46, but it failed because 60 votes were needed.

Reid supported the bill but voted against it in a procedural move that allows him as Senate majority leader to bring it up again later. Ensign voted to block the bill.

The tax package would have renewed dozens of expiring tax breaks for such items as renewable energy production, state and local sales taxes and business research and development.

The bill stalled, 51-43, in a procedural vote that required 60 votes.

Reid supported the bill but voted against it in a procedural tactic that allows him as Senate majority leader to bring it up later. Ensign voted to block the bill.

In the House, a bill to regulate energy market speculation also fell short.

The vote was 276-151, nine votes short of the two-thirds necessary to approve the bill. Democrats brought it up under special rules to prevent Republicans from attaching an offshore drilling amendment.

The bill would have added staff to and expanded authority of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. The agency regulates oil markets.

Reps. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and Jon Porter, R-Nev., voted for the bill. Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted against it.

TOBACCO BILL MOVES TO SENATE

A measure to give the Food and Drug Administration broad regulatory power over the tobacco industry passed the House 326-102. It goes to the Senate.

The bill would give the FDA authority to regulate nicotine levels and ban menthol in cigarettes. It would strengthen regulation of tobacco advertising and add federal penalties for the sale of tobacco products to minors.

Bush opposed the measure. Bush administration officials said the new authority might take away from the FDA’s primary mission of food and drug safety. It also opposes additional fees to smokers to pay for the FDA’s new authority.

Berkley and Porter voted for the bill. Heller voted against it.

EQUAL PAY MEASURE PASSED

Women who are paid less than their male colleagues would more easily be able to pursue discrimination claims in court under a bill passed 247-178 in the House.

The bill would lift limits on legal damages and consider gender discrimination the same as age, race and disability discrimination. Employers who pay women and men differently would have to prove a clear reason for the discrepancy.

Opponents said only trial lawyers would profit from a bill they said would open the door to frivolous lawsuits.

Supporters said women deserve equal pay for equal working, noting statistics that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.

Berkley and Porter voted for the bill. Heller voted against it.

HOUSE BLOCKS RANGEL CENSURE

The House derailed an attempt by Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio to reprimand longtime Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., for his use of four rent-stabilized apartments in New York City.

According to published reports, Rangel paid discounted rent for the four apartments in the same building. One was used as a campaign office, which would violate House rules.

Boehner called it an unethical “sweetheart deal” for the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Rangel insisted he did nothing wrong.

The vote was 254-138 to kill the censure resolution.

Heller voted for censure. Berkley and Porter voted against it.

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