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Congress could confound the skeptics

President Bush sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this week, even as American and allied troops were preparing for more military action in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But in Congress, the action was on domestic affairs, with a full-to-overflowing agenda facing the House and Senate through the summer and into the fall.

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Among the top issues: farm and energy bills, therapeutic cloning, supplemental spending, and border security.

Waiting in the wings: trade promotion authority for the president, a patients' bill of rights, making permanent the repeal of the estate tax, welfare reform, a prescription drug-benefit for seniors, and election reform.

A slew of other issues, including various investment and accounting reform bills proposed in the aftermath of the Enron debacle, military reform, healthcare for the uninsured, the structure of the Office of Homeland Security, and all 13 appropriations bills, also are pending.

This would be a jam-packed agenda at the beginning of a new Congress, with two years to work it all through. In this case, there are six months until the November elections, meaning at best four months of legislative work.

Even so, much could be done if there were bipartisan cooperation and comity within and between the two houses of Congress. But there isn't. Partisanship is sharp; tension is growing. To make matters worse, the margins of party control in both chambers are razor thin, raising the stakes of the election even more. Each house could go either way.

Of course, President Bush, continuing to ride high in public approval and esteem from his leadership on the war on terror, could provide the impetus to move the legislation along. But with few exceptions, the president has pulled back from the congressional fray on most domestic issues, preferring to use his time and political capital on the war front.

So the outcome has to be gridlock, right? Wrong. Many of the pending bills may well falter, fade, or freeze. But the dynamics of the political process right now may surprise the naysayers and result in a spate of legislative accomplishments. That's the good news. The bad news is the quantity of legislative accomplishments will not be matched by quality.

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Paradoxically, the drive to act is shaped by some of the same forces that, on the surface, should lead to gridlock. Because the stakes of the election are so high, each party is scared of making a mistake – getting on the wrong side of a popular issue, being hit with the obstructionist charge, appearing on any issue to be defending the indefensible – that could cost it enough seats for either party to wind up in the minority.

Even a small mistake, involving one or two seats, could be enough. So the parties try to protect their flanks, expose the flanks of the other guys, energize their base supporters, and simultaneously focus on the battleground congressional districts and states with key Senate contests to gain a little edge.

Thus, nobody wants to be viewed as opposing farmers (the farm states are all key battlegrounds), so both parties vie in a bidding war to fatten farm subsidies. Nobody wants to be framed as supporting pharmaceutical companies against seniors, so both sides engage in a bidding war over a prescription-drug benefit.

Nobody wants to be for more taxes, or for anything called a "death tax," so both houses will likely eliminate estate taxes, despite the deficit-enhancing revenue drain and the debilitating effect on charitable giving.

Nobody wants to be accused of sitting back if another energy crisis hits this summer, so both sides scramble to pass energy bills. In the energy bills, no one wants to be charged with being either antiproduction or anticonservation, so both sides add expensive and ineffective tax credits to support both. At the same time, the Senate energy bill tripled subsidies for ethanol, not based on its energy or environmental impact, but more because of concern about key Senate races in Iowa and South Dakota.

Confounding the skeptics, Congress may be able to enact a major farm bill, a major energy bill, more major tax cuts, even a prescription-drug benefit for seniors. That beats gridlock – but it adds a whole new agenda for next year: cleaning up the mess from the bills passed this year.

• Norman Ornstein is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.