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Congress turns its focus to business agenda

WASHINGTON—Republicans in Congress and their corporate allies see some daylight for pro-business legislation in the weeks ahead, now that judicial nominations and House Republican leader Tom DeLay's travails have slipped into a legislative twilight, at least for the moment.

As lawmakers return Tuesday from a Memorial Day recess, Republican leaders are eager to work on such business priorities as energy legislation, a Central American trade treaty and asbestos-litigation relief. Bipartisan success on those measures would temper weeks of partisan confrontation and give President Bush some needed victories after recent setbacks in Congress.

All three issues pose a leadership challenge, particularly to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who faces Republican defections on trade and asbestos and a difficult floor fight on energy.

Time is short. Frist is under pressure to test the strength of a judicial confirmation deal between seven Democrats and seven Republicans that averted a partisan showdown before Memorial Day. A new confrontation over judges could lay waste to any Republican initiative awaiting congressional action.

The stakes are high for the White House, too. Bush's Social Security overhaul is on a legislative back burner. Iraq, where insurgent attacks are increasing, remains the administration's biggest challenge. And with his poll ratings down, Bush is facing questions about whether he's becoming a lame duck.

"It's very important to the president to show that there still is an agenda other than judges and Social Security," said Dan Danner, senior vice president for public policy at the National Federation of Independent Business. "At the end of the day I don't know that all of these (business-oriented bills) have to be signed into law, but the White House has to show that they're doing everything they can to get them passed."

In Congress and within the administration, the business community's priorities have been competing with the agenda of the president's social conservative allies. Indeed, the showdown over judges was a proxy fight over social values that focused on the stances by a handful of nominees on abortion and affirmative action.

"Given the choice between a social conservative judge and passage of the asbestos bill or an energy bill or a highway bill, there is no choice for the business community," said Ross Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University. "To the extent these values issues come up, it tends to crowd out what the business community would like to see."

But the business lobby's legislative priorities may conflict with what many Republican activists consider the political brass ring: giving the federal judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court, a more conservative cast. If a vacancy opens on the Supreme Court this summer, the Senate will devote far less attention to other legislative battles.

"Certainly Bush will leave more of a legacy through his nominations on the court than he will through an energy bill," said Michael Franc, a former top Republican congressional aide who's now vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

This week, the Senate is expected to approve the nomination of Janice Rogers Brown, a California Supreme Court justice, to a federal appeals court under the terms of the bipartisan deal struck before Memorial Day. It also may clear the controversial nomination of John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Congress then hopes to move on to this pro-business agenda:

_CAFTA.

Bush is pressing hard for a new free-trade pact with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, called the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA. It would further the goal of eliminating trade barriers across the Americas—a process that began with Ronald Reagan and led to the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

CAFTA doesn't affect as many U.S. industries as previous trade deals. Still, lobbyists, strategists and congressional aides say this may be the most difficult pact yet to get through Congress. Organized labor opposes it, as do U.S. sugar producers, who argue that the deal puts them at a disadvantage.

But the real problem is a growing wariness in Congress about exposing U.S. interests to global economic competition. While free trade creates some jobs in the United States by expanding markets for American-made products, other U.S. jobs are lost to foreign competition and free trade drives some industries overseas in search of cheap labor. For members of Congress whose communities are suffering major job losses, that's a problem without a Democratic or Republican label.

Further complicating the U.S. trade picture are accusations from congressional Republicans and Democrats that China is manipulating its currency to get an unfair edge in commerce.

"The problem on the trade front is China, China, China," said Bruce Josten, the top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

_ENERGY.

The Senate is expected to begin debate on a bipartisan energy bill the week of June 13. It includes tax breaks for energy production and aims to cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

But the legislation that cleared the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee by a 21-1 vote last month was stripped of several controversial items, such as clean-fuel rules, new offshore oil and gas leases and drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which was attached to separate budget legislation.

"Some of the more challenging issues are being deferred," Josten said.

They could emerge as hard-fought amendments on the Senate floor or later in a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences between the chambers' differing bills. The last energy bill considered by Congress died in a House-Senate conference committee.

_ASBESTOS.

The asbestos legislation is designed to ease the pressure of lawsuits against businesses by people made ill or killed by exposure to asbestos, the fire retardant linked to cancer and lung disease. The legislation is a top business priority.

The Senate bill would create a $140 billion trust fund financed by companies facing asbestos liability and by their insurers. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved it last month.

But the bill faces significant opposition. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., opposes it and even some Republicans, such as John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona, have doubts and want assurances that taxpayers won't be left footing the bill.

No similar legislation is moving through the House at this time.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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