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State of the Union, Estrada Nomination Top Week’s Agenda as Congress Readies for Budget and Medicare Battles

As the 108th Congress wraps up last year’s work, its attention turns to setting the agenda for 2003-04.

A tough list of issues awaits the new leadership, including a prescription drug plan for seniors, a mammoth tax cut proposed by President Bush and the 2004 budget.

The highlight of the week takes place Tuesday night, when Bush delivers his State of the Union address. The president is expected to expand on his plan to provide prescription drug coverage for senior citizens on Medicare mainly by shepherding them into a new program run by health maintenance organizations.

He already has unveiled his $674 billion economic stimulus plan, which includes eliminating taxes on corporate dividends.

Both Senate and House leaders expect to tackle these, and counterproposals, early on, aides said.

But first up is completion of last year’s spending bill. Conferees for the $391 billion omnibus spending package that passed the Senate last week are expected to be named this week.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) would like to wrap up negotiations over the bill, which covers the 11 unpassed fiscal 2003 spending bills, as early as Feb. 5, while House appropriators have set a more realistic Presidents Day timeline.

Once that is done, appropriators can look toward a budget outline for fiscal 2004, which starts Oct. 1, and dig into the 13 annual spending bills.

While leaders name conferees, the two chambers will take up other business this week.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on Miguel Estrada’s nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Meanwhile, the House will take up a number of noncontroversial bills under suspension of the rules — an expedited floor procedure — and approve another continuing resolution to keep the government funded until the conference report can be finalized. The current CR expires at the end of the month.

As for the a long-term agenda, an aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said DeLay has broken down issues into two categories: must pass and want to pass.

In the first category are topics such as the budget, renewing the welfare reform initiative that expires this year, and a jobs and economic growth package. In the latter category are more politically volatile issues such as making some tax cuts enacted last year permanent, proposing an energy package and banning a procedure opponents have dubbed “partial-birth” abortion.

The Senate will waste no time in moving judicial and other administration nominees, according to an aide to Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

For example, John Snow, Bush’s nominee to be secretary of the Treasury, will have his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.

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