After November’s election many predicted a window of opportunity for Congress to get something done before the onset of the 2008 presidential campaign. Unfortunately that opportunity has all but disappeared. Almost two years out most candidates have announced and the media is paying attention as if it were October 2008. Gridlock will result.

All candidates face the problem of first getting nominated by their party before campaigning in the general election in November. But taking positions to appeal to extremists of either party may cause defeat in November. There is a limit to the number of flip-flops any candidate can sell.

Congress spent last week focused on Iraq. Joe Lieberman stated “For the Senate to take up a symbolic vote of no confidence on the eve of a great battle is unprecedented, but it is not inconsequential. It is an act which, I fear, will discourage our troops, hearten our enemies, and showcase our disunity.” Progress on the ground in Iraq by early 2008 will determine both the landscape of the 2008 presidential primary races and the general election.. Candidates would do well to remain quiet until then.

A major Taliban offensive in Afghanistan is expected this spring that will become headline news. NATO has not lived up to its commitments, and it is not expected to. Italy may withdraw its 1800 man contingent. Canada may withdraw if other NATO members don’t send promised troops. However, the U.S. has increased its forces to 24,000, about 6.000 more than a year ago. The Afghan army has doubled its size to 70,000, and the desertion rate of 25% in 2005 has dropped to 10% today. Afghan troops have received a raise to $100 a month, and the U.S. has invested $8.6 billion in two years to train and equip the Afghan army. The spring Taliban offensive is expected to fail.

President Bush submitted the 2008 budget totaling $2.9 trillion to the Congress on February 5th. For the first time it included a complete tally of spending in Iraq and Afghanistan for this year ($163 billion), an estimate for 2008 ($145 billion) and a projection of $50 billion for 2009. The budget proposes a 10% increase in military spending in 2008 in addition to the money for Iraq and Afghanistan. Liberal Democrats prefer instead to trim military spending in favor of larger increases for domestic programs.

Congress should approve its general budget resolutions by Spring, but this hasn’t happened in many years, and probably Congress will fail again this year. It’s more likely individual appropriation and reauthorization bills will again be fought over in late summer and fall.

Immigration reform appears once again to be a casualty. Yet overseas visitors to the U.S. have dropped by 17% since 2000. In 2006 visitors from western Europe dropped by 3% despite the weaker dollar and a record year for world tourism. In a survey by the travel industry, the U.S. scored more than twice as badly as the next region (the Middle East) in travel friendliness. Foreigners have decided to travel elsewhere.

One excellent Bush budget proposal has met with some bi-partisan support. A WW II law passed in 1943 amid price and wage controls set up preferential tax treatment for employer provided health insurance. Employers could deduct the cost of health insurance for employees, and employees would not be taxed on the value of the policies. It has led to today’s unintended results. Bush proposes to change the tax code to allow an individual to deduct up to $7,500 for the cost of health insurance ($15,000 percouple), and individuals with employer provided health insurance costing more would pay tax on the amount above the limits as if they were wages. About 20% of employees would be subject to some additional tax.

Oregon’s Democrat Senator Ron Wyden approves the idea, with the proviso that revenue generated by the tax on high earners be used to subsidize low earners, thus providing near universal health coverage by private enterprise. Democrats wanting government provided compulsory health care coverage probably will object. But polls indicate the vast majority of seniors are pleased with the Medicare Part D prescription drug program, and costs have come in lower than were projected.

Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Mel Martinez (R-Fl) introduced such a bill in January. Joining as co-sponsors were Senators Norm Coleman (R-MN), John Cornyn (R-TX), Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Jeff Sessions (R-TX). Coburn said “Allowing individuals to make choices about their health care unleashes the power of American innovation, which will provide better health care at a better price. One out of every four Oklahomans lack health insurance. I have more faith in the ability of Oklahomans to make health care choices instead of allowing Washington to make those choices for them.” Maybe this issue will be one bi-partisan achievement of Congress in 2007.

George Porter is a retired insurance company executive and a Duncan Banner columnist.