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Issues Abound, But No Clear Agenda Has Emerged

With looming fights over the federal budget, Social Security, the war in Iraq, immigration, the tax code, tort reform, and judicial and Cabinet confirmations, the 109th Congress opens today with more questions than answers. [IMGCAP(1)]

As the session begins today, neither House nor Senate GOP leaders have yet decided exactly how to spend the political capital they won when they cemented their control of Congress in November’s elections. And it’s far from certain that they’ll be able to (or want to) turn President Bush’s wish list into reality prior to the 2006 midterm elections.

A good example will be Bush’s plans to make an early push to build support for allowing people to invest part of their Social Security funds in the stock market. The White House, however, has no plan to include the costs of the politically perilous Social Security changes in its budget when it sends it up to Congress, likely on Feb. 7.

Despite the long anticipated need for another $100 billion plus in supplemental Iraqi war funding, Bush is not expected to include the costs of the U.S. occupation of Iraq in his budget either, nor is he expected to incorporate potential savings or costs from any tax code rewrite he may propose.

That could be a problem for Congressional Republicans, many of whom are already demanding more fiscal responsibility from themselves and the administration through rules changes to be adopted by the House today and current Senate rules that could make it difficult to pass a Social Security bill or tax rewrites unless they are protected from filibuster. Plus, it simply doesn’t look good, some budget hawks argue.

Without the inclusion of their desired Social Security changes and war costs, “people will say this is not a credible budget submission,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide. “Everybody knows they need to make it a part of their budget submission.”

The aide pointed out the White House’s reluctance to incorporate the hundreds of billions of dollars it will take to both stabilize Iraq and change Social Security stems primarily from their desire to be seen as fiscally disciplined.

“It distracts from the fiscal discipline message that they want to portray,” the aide said.

The White House has been particularly reluctant to put a price tag on the Social Security proposal, arguing that the president has not yet settled on a specific plan.

But Congressional Republicans may put an end to the White House’s budget tactics when they begin crafting their own blueprint in late February and March. After all, they did it last year when they set aside $50 billion in their budget for expected Iraq war costs, while the administration’s budget made no mention of the costs of the war. And if violence against American troops does not subside following the scheduled Jan. 30 Iraqi national elections, Congress could conceivably go beyond the Bush administration’s funding request for the war-torn nation.

Plus, convincing even the most conservative House Republicans to tinker with the third rail of American politics — Social Security — is no slam-dunk for Bush, and several key Members in both chambers have yet to weigh in. Certain to overshadow the process, particularly for Republicans nervous about voters experiencing the “six-year itch” in 2006, is the fact that Bush won’t be on the ballot again, while Members of Congress will be.

There’s little doubt that Congress will easily pass $350 million, and quite possibly more, in emergency relief funds to Southern Asian countries hit by a tsunami Dec. 26, especially given the rhetorical beating the administration has taken over the idea that it did not respond quickly enough to the disaster that has claimed at least 150,000 lives. Indeed, both chambers are expected to pass resolutions of solidarity with the nations of the battered region today, but work on the relief funds bill will likely not occur until after President Bush’s inauguration on Jan. 20, according to a Senate GOP aide.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is leaving Tuesday night to visit the earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged region to survey the damage and perhaps do a little doctoring, as the former heart surgeon is wont to do on overseas trips. Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) is also leading a Congressional delegation to the region this week. Leach, chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, had planned to take the trip before the tsunami hit.

But the larger question facing both chambers as they wait for the president to outline his agenda in his inaugural address and subsequent State of the Union address is which issues to wrestle with first.

Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), declined to disclose the House’s legislative plans for late January and early February, adding that many of those decisions won’t be finalized until a House Republican retreat to be held Jan. 27-29.

The Senate, on the other hand, already faces a busy month. Confirming nine new Cabinet secretaries will be a top priority, and most committees of jurisdiction have already scheduled confirmation hearings prior to Bush’s inauguration. Still, until a Supreme Court vacancy occurs, most of the media focus will be on Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales and Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold its first (and perhaps only) hearing on Gonzales on Thursday. Democrats are expected to grill Gonzales about his authorship of White House memos that some critics claim endorsed the use of torture methods that do not result in death or serious injury to suspected terrorists. As White House general counsel, Gonzales also advised the president that he did not have to abide by international law in granting suspected terrorists prisoner-of-war status.

Incoming Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has planned to hold Gonzales’ hearing this Thursday, but is open to to carrying the hearing over to Friday, if Senators on the committee still have questions.

“There will be a fair opportunity to ask the questions that need to be asked,” a Specter aide said.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled two hearings on Rice for Jan. 18 and 19. Democrats are certain to question Rice about intelligence failures that occurred on her watch as national security adviser for the past four years, as well as policy in Iraq.

The stakes in the looming fight over judicial nominees that has plagued the past two Congresses, meanwhile, saw more fuel added to it after Bush announced last month that he’ll renominate several appellate judicial picks Democrats successfully filibustered last year. And there’s little doubt that any votes on controversial circuit court and appeals court judges will be the precursor to the expected fight over a future Supreme Court nomination. Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s current battle with thyroid cancer has increased the chances of at least one vacancy on the high court this year.

The Senate may also take a page from Bush’s travels and push for so-called “tort reform” issues, following inauguration. Indeed, Bush will stop Wednesday in an Illinois county on best known for the large jury settlements handed out to plaintiffs in lawsuits.

Still, Frist has a choice to make — either start out with a battle in which the outcome is unclear, or pick a fight it is clear he can win. Frist has more than the 60 votes he needs to prevent a filibuster of a bill to rein in class action suits, and before the Christmas break the bill’s top Democratic proponent, Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), predicted a rousing bipartisan win if Frist brings up the compromise measure negotiated in the last Congress.

Less attractive to a majority of Senate Democrats is a bill to limit jury awards in medical malpractice cases, particularly those associated with obstetrician/gynecologists. With Senate Republican gains in the 2004 elections, Frist may have an easier time finding enough votes to block a filibuster, but Democrats are likely to mount a tough fight regardless and are likely to win over a few GOP allies.

Last, but not least, the House will squeeze in a vote on a package of rules changes today after the swearing in of Members.

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