Monday, August 22, 2005

HOT BUTTON CONGRESS

By William Fisher

When Congress returns to work in early September, it will face debate on a number of hot-button issues likely to inflame passions on the political left and right and deepen the country’s ideological divide.

The probable agenda includes reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, immigration and border control, embryonic stem cell research, a number of critical legal reforms, consideration of a new report from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) detailing its handling of pre-9/11 intelligence – and, of course, the confirmation hearings for John G. Roberts to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Groups on the political right and left have been busy loading their heavy artillery for the Roberts hearings. During August, they have been poring over some 60,000 pages of documents provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee by the government and the Reagan Library, looking for clues to Roberts’s judicial, social, and political views. Key areas of concern include civil rights, affirmative action, privacy, separation of church and state, a woman’s right to choose abortion, federal versus states’ rights, the authority of the judiciary branch of government, and the powers of the president and the executive branch versus those of congress.

Roberts was nominated by President George W. Bush in July. Confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee are scheduled to begin September 6. Roberts would be replacing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court, who announced she would retire when her replacement was confirmed.

Advocacy groups on the left and right have raised tens of millions of dollars to make their views known to the senate and the people. One of them, the pro-choice NARAL, stumbled early in the process by launching – and then withdrawing -- a series of television ads implying that Roberts sided with violent extremists and a convicted abortion clinic bomber while serving in the Solicitor General's office, an accusation that Roberts's supporters immediately condemned as a flagrant distortion. The group fears that Roberts would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.

A second major controversy will surround the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act. Hurriedly passed with little debate five weeks after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the measure gave law enforcement sweeping new powers to investigate and prosecute suspected terrorists and those who support them. A number of its provisions are due to expire at the end of this year.

Both houses of Congress have passed bills to renew the expiring parts of the Patriot Act. House and Senate leaders will meet to reconcile the considerable differences between the two bills.

In general, the House version would not only renew the expiring provisions, but would give law enforcement expanded new authorities. The Senate version is titled more toward reform of provisions that civil libertarians find troubling.

For example, it would require statements of fact on the relevancy of personal records in foreign intelligence investigations, offer suspects a right to challenge orders for personal records, provide more judicial oversight and checks on abuse in personal record searches, and mandate shorter delays for notification of secret "sneak and peek" searches.

Immigration will be another major issue facing Congress. The Judiciary Committee will be grappling with two conflicting approaches. One, introduced by two border-state Republicans, Sens. John Kyl of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas, would require workers in the U.S. illegally to return home before being permitted to participate in a new guest worker program. It would also allocate substantial new money for border control, interior and workplace enforcement, emphasizing "mandatory return" of an estimated 10 million illegal workers, and the other a authorizing a ‘guest worker’ program to provide undocumented immigrants a way to gain legal status. The other, introduced by Sens. Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, proposes a guest worker program while beefing up enforcement.

President Bush proposed a guest worker program over a year and a half ago, but ran into stiff opposition from House Republicans, who attacked it as an "amnesty" and demanded an enforcement crackdown.

Both sides acknowledge that the current system is dysfunctional. The wide availability of jobs in the United States, and the large pool of willing workers from Latin America and elsewhere, has swamped the availability of legal slots, leading to rampant violation of immigration laws and overwhelming the government's ability to enforce them.

There are some 10 million or more illegal immigrants in the U.S. and the number is believed to be growing rapidly.

Congress will also be focusing on the CIA’s pre-9/11 failures, with delivery of the long-overdue inspector general's report, now been completed nearly two years after the deadline set by congress.

The report has yet to be sent to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees because CIA Director Porter J. Goss is still deciding how to respond to its findings, according to administration and congressional sources. It is expected to
go to Congress shortly.

The CIA director was mandated to report to Congress on steps taken to assign
responsibility for poor performance and to reward excellence.

Appropriating federal funds for embryonic stem cell research is also likely to raise the congressional temperature and mobilizing advocacy groups on the right and the left. Senate Major Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and cardiac surgeon, announced just before recess that he would break with President Bush and authorize the use of federal money to fund research on embryos due to be discarded by fertility clinics and hospitals.

This initiative is fiercely opposed by groups on the religious right and endorsed by most physicians and scientists. President Bush has said he would veto such a measure because he believes it would “destroy life to create life”.

Another civil liberties-related bill, the so-called Streamlined Procedures Act, is also likely to provoke controversy and attract media attention because it would limit the centuries-old right to habeas corpus by barring federal courts from reviewing most capital sentencing, creating shorter timetables for appeals, or imposing onerous procedural roadblocks to prevent federal courts from considering key issues.

Habeas corpus, through which inmates challenge the legality of their detentions, has become the essential vehicle by which convicts on death row or serving lengthy prison terms attack their state-court convictions. Many innocent people owe their freedom to their ability to file habeas petitions.

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