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Senators Meet to Set Agenda

Wasting little time in trying to frame the debates on pressing domestic and foreign policy issues, Republican and Democratic Senators will meet separately Wednesday to begin crafting competing legislative plans for the new Congress.

Pending battles over the future of Social Security and further tax cuts and differences over the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan head the list of topics facing the incoming Senate, which remains deeply divided from the previous Congress and hard-fought November elections.

“These are some of the contentious issues that are going to face the Congress in the next year,” said a Democratic leadership aide, who spoke freely about the upcoming legislative challenges on the condition of anonymity.

Each party faces a different set of tests over the next few months, as Democrats seek to redefine their political identity and Republicans try to marshal President Bush’s legislative agenda past a stubborn Senate minority.

The burden of helping Bush enact his legislative priorities will fall largely onto the shoulders of Senate Republican leaders, who will be required in many cases to reach the 60 vote threshold to overcome Democratic objections.

“Clearly the president has articulated his legislative vision for the next two years and we will work diligently to try and enact some, if not all, with increased majorities in the House and Senate,” a Republican leadership aide said.

Across the aisle, Democratic leaders must first chart a political direction that will shape how the Caucus addresses policy matters for this Congress. Pointing to Republican gains in November, moderate Democrats have been pressing the party to move toward the center in an attempt to reconnect with voters in middle America. Meanwhile, liberal members of the caucus maintain the party should not reinvent itself as a reaction to the 2004 elections.

Even though there are differences over the party’s direction, Democrats seem to agree there is a need to improve their message.

“I don’t think we need an entirely new direction,” said a senior aide to a centrist Democratic Senator. “We just need to come up with a way to define ourselves instead of being defined by the other side.”

Without offering specifics, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a November interview that healthcare would be a cornerstone of the Democratic agenda in the 109th Congress. Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, said Monday the Minority Leader would wait until later this month to unveil a list of bills Democrats will push for in the coming year.

Complicating the differences over policy matters will be battles over Bush’s judicial nominees, 10 of whom Democrats successfully blocked last year from joining the federal bench.

The legislative fight over judges foreshadows a much grander confrontation expected to occur this year over the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice, which could include a new chief justice should current Chief Justice William Rehnquist retire. Rehnquist is currently battling with thyroid cancer.

In the short term, Senate Republican will be tasked with helping usher Bush’s nine Cabinet nominees through the Senate, as Bush reshapes his policy team in his second term. While Democrats are unlikely to block any of Bush’s Cabinet nominees from being approved, they are expected to vigorously question Alberto Gonzales — the president’s pick to be attorney general — and a yet-to-be-named Homeland Security director.

Democrats will gather at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for Wednesday’s strategy session where Reid —the newly elected Minority Leader — will discuss his goals for the new Congress and seek to explain how his new leadership team will function. Senior Democrats on committees are also expected to discuss the upcoming legislative agenda.

“This is designed to get Senate Democrats started talking about the agenda for the next Congress,” Manley said.

In addition, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) will address the meeting, a sign that Reid plans to strengthen ties to the Democratic governors — a group that has become more outspoken since the November elections.

“This is part of Senator Reid’s approach to leadership, by reaching out to both the Senate committees and also the Democratic governors as well,” Manley said.

At the same time, Republicans will convene at the Library of Congress to discuss their legislative agenda on the “macro” level, said a senior GOP aide, who added the discussion would likely turn to discussing a timeline for when Congress should address the overhaul of Social Security and tax changes.

While most Republicans are expected to attend, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) will not. He will be surveying the damage caused by last month’s tsunami in southern Asia. But Bush’s chief political adviser Karl Rove, is scheduled to address the group and is expected to talk about the GOP’s strengths heading into the new Congress and where Bush “wants to spend his political capital,” a source said.

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