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Reid, Pelosi Ready to Bookend Bush SOTU Speech

With the pomp and circumstance surrounding President Bush’s inauguration this week, the GOP-controlled Congress will largely defer to its commander in chief as Members jubilantly celebrate his coronation. [IMGCAP(1)]

On the Capitol campus, Members’ non-inaugural party activities will be largely confined to Tuesday and Wednesday’s back-to-back Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s nomination to be secretary of State, as well as the potential for the Senate to give Bush an Inauguration Day gift by confirming a few of his Cabinet replacements, including, perhaps, Rice.

The House will be in session for speechifying on Thursday, but votes aren’t expected until next week.

Still licking their wounds from last fall’s election, Congressional Democrats acknowledge they can’t and won’t try to compete with media attention surrounding President Bush’s swearing-in. Democrats say they’ll wait until next week to begin the party message war in advance of President Bush’s Feb. 2 State of the Union address — when, presumably, they will have more specific proposals to attack.

“The president has the bully pulpit [at the inaugural] and we recognize it’s difficult to match that,” said Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Daly said Pelosi and Congressional Democrats hope President Bush makes good on his earlier promise to be a “uniter not a divider,” even though most Democrats have already made clear they don’t believe his actions have, so far, met his rhetoric.

Pelosi will do a few spot television appearances Thursday before Bush’s national speech, but Democrats say they are mindful of the fact that the inaugural is primarily a ceremonial event.

“Traditionally, the inaugural is about all of us pulling together,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “Democrats will try to show some deference to the day.”

Instead, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will team up at the National Press Club on Jan. 31 for their “prebuttal” to the president’s State of the Union, dissecting Bush’s policy agenda for the next Congress and laying out Democratic alternatives on major issues.

Daly said the two leaders will focus on a range of issues, most notably Social Security reform, the Iraq war and the ballooning federal deficit. He added that Pelosi and Reid, by appearing together in advance of the State of the Union, will demonstrate the unity of the Democratic Party and lay out key differences between the two parties’ agendas. Pelosi and Reid also will come together to likely repeat themselves following the Feb. 2 State of the Union for the official Democratic response.

One may wonder how the opposition party already knows so much about what Bush is going to say and/or propose in his inaugural and State of the Union speeches.

Luckily for Democrats, the White House has already given them and everyone else a peek at some of their juiciest policy nuggets, and their rhetoric is not that hard to decipher, if you know what you’re looking for.

The White House is predictably mum on the content of Bush’s upcoming orations, but one can be fairly certain that he won’t outline his legislative proposals in the first of his two national addresses.

Indeed, White House spokesman Trent Duffy explained that, “The president is not likely to have his Congressional honey-do list in his inaugural speech,” which will be “more thematic, more broad, not just because it’s an inaugural speech, but because of the broad and philosophical challenges that are facing the country.”

Interpretation: The speech will likely be confined to phrases designed to paint Bush’s legacy for the history books and the president’s own brand of folksy idealism and religiosity.

But there may be clues to the sweeping policy proposals the president is expected to roll out in his Feb. 2 State of the Union address, given Bush’s well-known penchant for clinging to a few key phrases and repeating them indefatigably.

For example, it’s a fair bet that the president will again reference the notion of creating what he calls an “ownership society.”

“From a government perspective, [the president] believes there isn’t enough personal ownership in a lot of government programs,” said Duffy. “The ownership society is meant to give Americans more of a stake in America.”

Based on the smoke signals coming from the White House, that’s more than just rhetoric. The ownership society, as Bush sees it, includes such proposals as allowing people to invest part of their Social Security taxes in the stock market, the always popular cutting taxes, and providing low-income families with children in failing schools vouchers to attend better schools, to name a few.

Then, of course, there is Bush’s newest favorite phrase: “America must be the best place in the world to do business.” From that, one might extrapolate that Bush will continue to push Congress to set limits on class-action lawsuits and other civil actions, such as medical malpractice suits, among other things.

Lucky for Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) may already have wrapped up the class-action aspect of tort reform before Bush even gives his State of the Union speech two weeks from now. Frist has said he wants a bill to move more class-action suits to federal courts to be one of the first pieces of legislation on the Senate floor this year. There’s no word yet on exactly when the House will act on similar legislation, but it could be soon, according to a House Republican leadership aide.

But before that happens, the country has to first sing “Hail to the Chief.”

“As soon as inauguration is over, that signals the real beginning of the [Congressional] session for us and we can get on with the crafting and selling of the agenda,” said Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

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