WASHINGTON - Congress has adjourned for its traditional holiday season recess with several major business items still on the table. Two of them, a national energy bill and welfare reauthorization, contain important Indian-specific provisions.
The national energy bill has passed in the House of Representatives, but it stalled in the Senate when the Republican majority could not muster the 60 votes needed to break a Democratic filibuster (or intentionally prolonged debate) designed to keep the bill from coming to a final vote.
Indian country has a direct stake in the bill's fate - Title V of the bill in its latest version would permit tribes to choose "streamlined" energy development projects, dispensing with secondary Interior Department approvals once the initial go-ahead is given. Indirectly too, the bill could affect tribes in the form of higher power pricing in the geographically-remote markets of a deregulated industry.
Legislation reauthorizing the welfare reform law of 1996 got through the House, but also met with delay in the Senate over a slate of concerns. Chief among these for tribal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families programs are extended work requirements and cutbacks in child day care funding, according to Barbara Beller, legislative consultant for the Owens Valley Career Development Center of the Paiute-Shoshone Indians in Sacramento, Calif. A proposal to extend the work requirements for welfare recipients to 40 hours a week from the current 20 would be a burden on working mothers who receive TANF benefits, Beller said - doubly so without an increased commitment to day care funding.
Congress went into session again Dec. 8 to consider national spending bills and will then reconvene in January for the second half of the 108th Congress. Both the energy and welfare reauthorization bills are expected to be prominent on the agenda. The campaign pressures of a presidential election year are likely to complicate the political landscape in Congress, making it difficult to predict whether the cross-party alliances that stalled the two bills will hold fast in 2004.