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Members Prod Kerry on Agenda

Even before Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) takes the podium to accept his party’s nomination for president tonight, his Democratic allies in Congress are pressing him to commit to a major overhaul of the nation’s domestic and foreign policies shaped by Republicans for the past four years.

Across Capitol Hill, Members already are eyeing their legislative priorities and privately lobbying the Kerry campaign to embrace their agenda. This comes with the understanding, they say, that Kerry will begin his tenure with ballooning deficits and tight budgets that make costly new legislation a difficult proposition.

Democrats in Congress ranging from conservatives to progressives highlight health care, education, job growth and homeland security as their top domestic priorities. On foreign policy, they hope a President Kerry will work to smooth relationships with foreign allies, and set a firm plan for bringing down al Qaeda and ending the ongoing turmoil in Iraq.

Democrats also want Kerry to roll back a share of the Bush tax cuts for wealthier Americans and shift more of those cuts to the middle class to help pay for that agenda.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, said if Kerry takes office, he would urge him to summon leaders of both parties to the White House to craft a new financial plan for the nation.

“First of all try to put together a bipartisan summit … to try and reach a consensus on a long-term blue print for the budget future because nothing is going to be accomplished as long as the two sides are at war,” Conrad said. “We need to re-institute the budget discipline.”

If elected, Kerry is expected to rely heavily on two of his Massachusetts Democratic colleagues — Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Ed Markey — to act as liaisons to Congressional Democrats particularly in the first few months of his administration. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said, unlike Bush, Kerry would “bring an appreciation” of Congress and an “understanding of separation of powers and checks and balances.”

“He has served in this branch and he is very much aware that this is the people’s house of Congress,” said Byrd, who accuses the Bush administration of degrading the legislative branch’s role in overseeing the nation’s policy decisions.

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said Kerry’s foreign policy agenda would largely be shaped by what “kind of mess he is left with” in Iraq.

“If the situation in Iraq is absolute disarray and turmoil it will call for one course of action,” said Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “If things are moving along and they have had a successful election in Iraq it will call for another.”

Biden also said he would expect that one of Kerry’s top priorities would be to repair relations with the international community, which Democrats argue the Bush administration has damaged over the past four years by pursuing a unilateral foreign policy agenda.

“This administration will have to ask a lot of European friends,” said Biden, who acknowledged mending fences would be a difficult task.

“He is going to have to say to the world, ‘Get over it. Let’s figure out where we have a mutual interest and where we can work together. Don’t lay on the United States because Bush messed us up.’”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), a moderate Democrat, agreed, saying Democrats share Kerry’s broad goal of “strength in America and respect abroad.” Hoyer said beyond improving international diplomacy, however, he must also tackle the nation’s growing deficit, set a course for job growth as well as a prescription drug plan and greater education spending.

House Democrats say they understand it will be more difficult to stay unified if Kerry wins in November, noting it is easier for the minority party to stay together opposing Republican plans than setting their own agenda, which requires making tough choices. They also acknowledge they will not be able to afford everything they want.

“I think [Members] know that and will accept that,” Hoyer said. ”Clearly it’s not possible — given this administration’s economic policies — we’ve dug ourselves in a very deep hole. It’s necessary to dig ourselves out of that hole and in that effort we’re not going to be able to do everything we need to do.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said his group’s members have a laundry list of priorities, but atop the list are greater access to and affordability of health care, more funding for minority health care and an increase in federal education spending. He said Kerry has already promised health care reform would be his first domestic item brought before Congress.

Cummings acknowledged, “there are a lot of people who are impatient” about getting their top proposals turned into law, and said “it will take time.” But he added if Democrats were able to turn the nation’s economy around under former President Bill Clinton, they can do so again.

“Kerry has a golden opportunity to steer the agenda,” Cummings said.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said beyond a balanced budget, he would like to see a far-reaching immigration-reform package including greater access to U.S. citizenship and improved worker protection.

“I would be tickled pink” if Kerry proposes an immigration package in his first 100 days in office, Menendez said.

In addition to helping shape the nation’s appellate and district court systems, there is a strong possibility that the next president will also be given the responsibility of selecting multiple justices to serve on the nation’s highest court.

“I think he has to prepare for the fact that there could be three of our vacancies to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee. “That is going to be his biggest challenge.”

Leahy also said Kerry will need to give thoughtful pause to who will lead the Justice Department in his administration — an agency that Democrats accuse former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) of mismanaging.

Another challenge for Kerry, said Leahy, “is whom are you going to appoint as attorney general?”

On the environmental front, Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) said he believes Kerry will need to review Bush’s environmental policy including showing a willingness to engage the international community on environmental issues.

Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), a member of the conservative Blue Dogs, said if Kerry leads from the center, Democrats will be able to get the support of the American people for his presidency and his agenda. Hill said Kerry must first propose a balanced budget before he does anything else.

“George Bush put us in a bad situation with this budget,” Hill said. “This president is spending money like a drunken sailor and has no fiscal discipline whatsoever. He’s run higher deficits than anytime in history and tough, tough decisions will have to be made.”

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