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GOP Sees Taxes, Social Security on ‘Dual Track’

Realizing there is a small window of opportunity to take action on the controversial topics of Social Security and tax reform, Congressional Republicans are considering a dual-track strategy to force action on these issues before the 2006 election season is in full swing.

Meeting at a resort in Irvington, Va. last week, Republican leaders agreed that most legislative business needs to take place in the first 18 months of the 109th Congress with an emphasis on completing divisive bills on the front end of this time frame.

There was sentiment at the bicameral leadership retreat to “move them both on the dual track, and then let’s just see what happens,” a GOP House leadership aide said of Social Security and tax reform.

Senate and House Republican leaders also debated whether they should be aggressive in trying to marshal contentious bills through the Congress or instead seek a more conciliatory approach to passing legislation that has broad support.

“From a process perspective, there is a shared recognition that the public expects us to deliver solutions,” said a Senate Republican leadership staffer. “We can’t afford to let any of our own internal dissension cause us not to produce results. We need to work together.”

Republican aides said there was a general consensus between the two chambers’ leaders that they should try to move on a broad legislative agenda quickly at the outset, with a likely focus on legal issues such as class action, medical malpractice reform, education and healthcare.

Republicans said they are also trying to divine the Democrats’ strategy next year, specifically trying to pinpoint the issue that will unite Democrats in opposition to a Republican initiative or nominee. GOP leaders said they think the first major showdown will occur when a vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court.

Another topic of discussion at the retreat was Senate Democrats’ new “war room,” which is being established to try and counter the power of the White House bully pulpit.

“It came as no surprise, because it was clear the Democrats needed to consolidate their strategic messaging center in a place other than the [Democratic National Committee],” said a GOP leadership aide. “The Senate has national spokespeople with national prominence … and it is a place they can play and can really affect the agenda.”

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) told her colleagues during the House-only session that the party needed to learn from and capitalize on its successes in the 2004 elections.

Specifically, Pryce said Republicans needed to define themselves before Democrats did it for them, continue targeting traditionally Democratic constituencies, communicate with so-called “values voters” and pay more attention to their constituents and local press rather than the “Beltway media.”

This messaging strategy is likely to be put in play when the GOP addresses the Social Security issue, aides said.

“We all agreed that there needs to be a tremendous public awareness campaign that takes place first,” said a House Republican aide.

A Senate GOP leadership aide acknowledged Republican leaders are fully aware of the politically consequences of not devoting the appropriate amount of time to reform Social Security.

“You can’t get into this with half a heart,” the aide said.

At times in the 108th Congress, Senate and House Republicans were unable to move key legislative items through their respective chambers over policy disagreements. This rare bicameral retreat was a step in moving towards a mutual understanding and respect of the political and policy pressures GOP leaders in both chambers face, a Senate GOP aide said. White House political strategist Karl Rove and Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten were in attendance and made presentations.

“It was actually very productive,” added a House GOP leadership aide. “You’re meeting in an environment where nothing is going on. You’re thinking more abstractly so there’s not tempers or finger-pointing or anything like that.”

In one of the Senate meetings the leaders discussed how to overcome Democratic hurdles facing some of President Bush’s judicial nominees, but no solution was reached. Several Republicans are pushing for the so-called “nuclear option,” which would scuttle a Democratic filibuster by requiring only a simple majority to approve judicial nominations.

In his presentation, Bolten ran through the latest budget figures and also told lawmakers what they already knew — that the White House will likely ask for another supplemental spending bill in early 2005 to pay for operations in Iraq.

Democrats’ Destination: Kingsmill

House Democrats have selected the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va., for their annual issues retreat.

Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) initially selected the same site for the group’s 2004 retreat, but damage to the vacation spot caused by Hurricane Isabel forced House Democrats to change venues to Virginia’s Homestead Resort.

Details for the conference, scheduled for Feb. 3-5, 2005, are still being completed, and Menendez is expected to issue a survey in coming weeks to gather ideas for the event.

— Jennifer Yachnin

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