Challenges before US Congress

When the US 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. Groups on the political right and left have been busy loading their heavy artillery for the confirmation hearings for John G Roberts to a seat on the US Supreme Court. 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. 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, which 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 reauthorisation of the USA Patriot Act. Hurriedly passed with little debate five weeks after the Sep. 11, the measure gave law enforcement sweeping new powers to investigate and prosecute suspected terrorists and those who support them.

Immigration will be another major issue. The Judiciary Committee will be grappling with two conflicting approaches. One would require workers in the US to return home before being permitted to participate in a new guest worker programme. The other proposes a guest worker programme while beefing up enforcement.

Both sides acknowledge that the current system is dysfunctional. The wide availability of jobs in the US, and the large pool of willing workers from Latin America and elsewhere, have swamped the availability of legal slots, leading to rampant violation of immigration laws and overwhelming the government’s ability to enforce them. Congress will also be focusing on the CIA’s pre-9/11 failures with delivery of the long-overdue inspector general’s report, now complete 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.

Appropriating federal funds for embryonic stem cell research is also likely to raise the congressional temperature and mobilise advocacy groups on the right and the left. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and cardiac surgeon, announced just before the recess that he would break with President Bush and authorise 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. Bush has said he would veto such a measure because he believes it would “destroy life to create life”. — IPS