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Democrats Set to Press In Senate

Hoping to play off the uncertainty caused by Hurricane Katrina, high gas prices and fears of a bird flu pandemic, Senate Democratic leaders vowed Wednesday to repeatedly try to force those issues onto the Senate agenda during the four and a half weeks until Thanksgiving and implied that they may try to keep the Senate in session longer than the current target adjournment of Nov. 18.

“No matter what the schedule of the Majority Leader is, we as the minority are going to do things that must be addressed for the American people,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “We’re not going to leave here based on what the Majority Leader’s schedule is. We’re going to work on some of our own things.”

In what will likely be staged confrontations on the Senate floor, Democrats plan to ask consent to bring up legislation to help hurricane victims, to deal with high gasoline and home-heating prices, and to help mitigate a possible flu pandemic at various times over the next few weeks. The presumption is that Republicans will object, either because they oppose the legislation or because it is unusual for anyone other than the Majority Leader to bring up new business before the Senate.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also noted that Democrats would use other procedural tactics, saying, “We will use every rule of the Senate,” to accomplish their goals.

On Wednesday, Republicans shot down the Democrats’ first attempt to pass up a bill that would extend Medicaid benefits to victims of Katrina who otherwise would be ineligible for the government’s subsidized health care for the poor.

As part of their strategy, Democrats also are expected to continue pushing for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the federal government’s failures in responding to Katrina. Because Democrats have insisted on being able to offer that proposal as an amendment to the Defense Department authorization bill, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has refused to bring the Defense’s measure up for floor consideration this fall.

Other confrontations in the next few weeks will likely be less cut-and-dry, given that both Democrats and Republicans have proposals to deal with a possible flu outbreak as well as with high gas prices.

While Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused Republicans of dragging their feet on dealing with what scientists and government officials say could be a global flu pandemic in the near future, Frist declared on Tuesday that the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was actively working on a comprehensive measure to deal with any potential outbreak in the United States.

“We need a comprehensive approach, and we’re going to lead on it,” said Frist, who acknowledged that he has not heard yet from the White House nor the House about their plans for dealing with the issue. Already, the Senate included $3.9 billion in funding for vaccines in the Defense appropriations bill, which is currently in conference with the House.

Still, Democrats are pursuing their own comprehensive legislation to address the deadly bird flu, said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. Their bill, for example, will likely include funding for surveillance and monitoring of bird flu in other countries, he said. Meanwhile, Schumer is pursuing a proposal to force the maker of a bird flu therapy to license American companies to manufacture the medicine, which currently is in short supply.

On energy policy, Democrats again argue that Republicans are not doing enough to help consumers and businesses hit hard by gas prices that have hovered around $3 a gallon for months.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said Democrats are focused on bills to punish price gouging by gasoline companies as well as efforts to increase funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which would help consumers pay for home heating fuel this winter.

But Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who recently embraced changing automobile fuel efficiency targets, blamed Democrats for much of the delay in implementing higher standards for automakers, which he said would go along way toward reducing the nation’s demand for gasoline and therefore gas prices.

“Democrats have been just as unwilling to change” the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards, as have Republicans, Domenici said. “As far as rising gas prices … it would be interesting to see what else they have in mind.”

Indeed, Stabenow opposes changes to CAFE standards, saying market forces will compel U.S. automakers to improve their vehicles’ fuel efficiency.

Domenici and his fellow Republicans also have been pushing proposals to open up both Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and more of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas drilling — a plan many Democrats and environmentalists vigorously oppose.

Democrats also are objecting to moving forward with a budget reconciliation bill that would cut billions from programs, such as Medicaid, as well as extend tax cuts on stock dividends and capital gains.

“We should not do that at the expense of some very urgent needs,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

However, Democrats are somewhat conflicted about how to go about their objections to moving forward with reconciliation, given that the bill is also slated to include tax breaks for college tuition as well as provisions making sure that the alternative minimum tax does not unfairly hit middle-income families.

Indeed, Baucus said those provisions and others that affect poor and middle class taxpayers are necessary to “relieve some burdens.”

Baucus, who as the ranking member on the Finance Committee is charged with negotiating the level of cuts to Medicaid and other mandatory programs, also acknowledged that there is a need for some spending cuts because of the ballooning budget deficit.

Meanwhile, Manley said Reid and other Democrats would like Republicans to jettison all the proposed cuts under reconciliation.