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Congress in 2003: from tigers to Medicare

Lawmakers acted on measures that affect Americans in major ways, but at a price - in debt and partisan rancor.

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Midway through the 108th Congress - and on the eve of a presidential election year - lawmakers are amassing a legislative record that will touch every home in America.

Some new laws address hot-button issues, from child abduction and to those irksome telemarketers who always call just when the lasagna is ready for dinner. And then there's the new worry of waking up to a tiger next door, after reports that exotic pets have become a big underground business.

Republican control of both House and Senate also allowed some unusually significant policy changes. Some of these have been batted around for years, only now gaining enough momentum and votes. These include:

• A major drug entitlement in Medicare, expected to cost $2.4 trillion over the next 20 years.

• Health savings accounts, which offer working Americans new ways to shield large sums from the taxman.

• Tacit approval of White House plans to outsource 1 in 2 federal jobs nationwide, affecting millions of workers - and perhaps saving money for taxpayers.

• Dipping a toe, for the first time, into school vouchers. Federal education funds in Washington, D.C., are poised to be put in the hands of parents, who may use the money for private or parochial schools.

It's a session that, in a phrase favored by GOP leadership, "produced product," but at a price: intense partisan rancor and huge deficits. The legislative branch also lost virtually every end-of-year dispute with the White House and comes out of the session seriously weakened.

The GOP tactic of virtually locking the minority out of negotiations on key bills angered Democrats. So did last month's Medicare "long count," when House leaders extended a 15-minute vote into nearly three hours, until enough votes were switched to change the outcome.

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