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ANALYSIS — Congressional update: Some work continues even in election year

WASHINGTON (BP)–An election year in Congress normally can be expected to produce great effort by some members but few results legislatively. In a presidential campaign, the desire not to alienate voters is even more pronounced.

This year is no exception, but advocates of change in sanctity-of-life, gambling, education, family and religious liberty policies are still making the effort with the help of some of their allies on Capitol Hill.

Here is a status report on some of the legislation supported by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission as Congress takes its Easter recess.

— Partial-birth abortion — The House of Representatives approved the Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act with a two-thirds majority, 287-141, in early April. The Senate approved a similar bill 63-34 in October but fell short of the two-thirds vote needed to override a presidential veto. Differences will have to be worked out between the slightly dissimilar versions, but the resulting measure appears destined to fall victim again to President Clinton. He has twice vetoed the proposal, and the Senate twice has failed to gain a two-thirds majority. The bill would prohibit a procedure in which a nearly totally delivered baby is killed normally in the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy.

— Religious liberty — A measure to restore a previous standard for the protection of religious expression against governmental interference is stalled in the Senate. The House voted 306-118 in July for the Religious Liberty Protection Act. Shortly thereafter, some of the bill’s backers, including the National Council of Churches and People for the American Way, withdrew their support. A mostly conservative coalition continues to work for its passage in the Senate, where the bill is S. 2081. RLPA would require a governmental entity to show it has a “compelling interest” and its action is the “least restrictive means” in furthering that interest before it can substantially burden a person’s religious expression. Unlike a broader piece of legislation enacted in 1993 only to be struck down by the Supreme Court, RLPA utilizes the spending clause, the interstate commerce clause and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to restore this test. Another religious liberty bill, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 4237), was introduced in the House in mid-April. A Senate version was introduced in September.

— Assisted suicide — The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote out the Pain Relief Promotion Act April 27. The bill supports the use of federally controlled substances for the alleviation of pain, even if the risk of death increases in the process, but it clarifies such drugs may not be used intentionally to assist in a suicide. Since Oregon legalized physician-assisted suicide more than two years ago, all 47 people who have been reported as taking their lives legally have done so with federally regulated drugs. The House passed the measure in October with a 271-156 vote.

— Marriage tax penalty — Tax relief for married couples appears unlikely in this session. Senate Democrats blocked a vote on a bill in mid-April, and President Clinton has indicated he will veto the Republican-backed proposal. The House voted 268-158 in favor of the Marriage Tax Penalty Relief Act in February. Supporters of the measure say the legislation is needed because under the tax code about 21 million married couples pay a yearly average of $1,400 more in taxes than they would if they lived together without being married.

— Education savings accounts — The White House also seems prepared to veto an education reform bill that would allow tax-free savings accounts to be used for public and private schooling at the elementary and secondary levels. In March, the Senate voted 61-37 in favor of the Affordable Education Act, which includes the proposal for education savings accounts. The House has yet to vote on its version, H.R. 7. The measure would permit parents or others to place as much as $2,000 a year for a child in an account with no tax on the interest if it is used for education. This post-tax money could be used for kindergarten through 12th-grade students at private, religious or home schools, but it also could be utilized for such expenses as tutoring, uniforms or home computers for public-school students. The president already has killed the legislation three times.

— Internet gambling — A ban on gambling on the Internet has moved toward a vote on the House floor after Senate passage of a similar bill in November. The House Judiciary Committee approved the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act in early April. The House version, H.R. 3125, is designed to update a 1961 law prohibiting betting over telephone wires. It targets the operators of Internet gambling enterprises rather than the gamblers.

— Violence against unborn children — The House voted 254-172 in September in favor of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (H.R. 2436), which would provide legal protection for unborn children when they are harmed during the commission of a federal crime. The Senate has not acted on the bill. The measure would criminalize violence resulting in injury or death to an unborn child when it is committed during a violent federal offense against a pregnant woman. The punishment for such a crime against an unborn child would correspond to the penalty provided if the same harm were inflicted upon the mother.

— Parental rights in abortion — The House has passed another pro-life measure that has elicited no action in the Senate. In June, representatives approved the Child Custody Protection Act 270-159. The bill, H.R. 1218, would make it a crime for an adult to transport a minor to another state for an abortion without the parents’ involvement when the state in which the girl lives requires either parental notification or consent before such a procedure.

— Sex trafficking — A House floor vote may be near on a proposal to combat international sexual trafficking in women and children. The House Judiciary Committee gave the go-ahead to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, H.R. 3244, in early April. Among other provisions, the bill provides for punishment, including prison terms, for those who bring women and children into the United States for the purpose of forced prostitution. It also establishes an office within the State Department to report on countries that fail to combat sex trafficking adequately. Sanctions on nonhumanitarian aid to offending countries could be enforced, although the president has the authority under the legislation to waive such sanctions. Two Senate versions were introduced in mid-April.

Gambling on amateur sports — The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved in mid-April legislation that would prohibit gambling on Olympic, college and high school sports. The Amateur Sports Integrity Act, S. 2340, would prohibit any government entity from sponsoring, operating, advertising, promoting, licensing or authorizing any type of gambling, including lotteries and sweepstakes, on amateur sports.