Congress Is Ready to Return the Favor

Times Staff Writer

The curtain goes up on the new GOP-controlled Congress this week with Republicans wielding more clout than ever to advance President Bush's agenda of bigger tax cuts, more conservative judges and a muscular defense against foreign adversaries.

Call it the Congress that Bush built. Many Republicans give credit to Bush for helping them regain control of the Senate and expand their House majority in the 2002 midterm elections. The Senate's new majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, is a Bush favorite. And Bush's legislative priorities will dominate, especially in the next few months.

The president is prodding Congress first to act on aid for the unemployed and tax cuts he will propose Tuesday during Congress' opening day. But Republicans' ability to act quickly may be set back by the gut-wrenching change of leadership thrust upon them when Trent Lott of Mississippi was forced out as the GOP's Senate leader after making a racially divisive remark last month.

Lott's departure left the job of running the narrowly divided, balky Senate in the hands of Frist. Though widely respected, Frist has remarkably little legislative experience for someone who will lead the Senate. "It's not going to be easy," said Roger Davidson, a government professor emeritus with the University of Maryland. "Frist doesn't have the kind of hands-on experience with juggling legislative issues that Trent Lott had."

Frist is not alone on the learning curve. Six of the top eight incoming party leaders in the House and Senate are new to their jobs, including Frist's deputy, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and newly elected House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

The tumult that inevitably comes with the transfer of congressional power could slow action on issues as important as Bush's economic growth package, and matters as rudimentary as funding to get Senate committees up and running.

The House and Senate open Tuesday with the ceremonial swearing-in of members. Despite Republicans' gains in November's elections, Congress remains closely divided between the two parties: The Senate includes 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent who is allied with the Democrats. The new House will have 229 Republicans, 204 Democrats and one independent who sides with the Democrats. (A Democrat was expected to win a House seat Saturday in a special election in Hawaii.)

Bush will outline his legislative plans for the year in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address and in his budget to be submitted Feb. 3. But with a speech scheduled for Tuesday in Chicago to unveil his tax cut proposals, he has ensured that economic policy will dominate the early months of the year. Democrats already were attacking the speech, especially Bush's expected proposal to reduce taxes on dividend income.


'Wrong Idea'

In his party's weekly radio address Saturday, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota called the dividend tax break "the wrong idea at the wrong time for the wrong people."

"The president's plan won't help middle-income families, it won't contribute to economic growth," Daschle said, adding that it also would not strengthen homeland security, education or Social Security. Democrats are trying to fashion an alternative that would target tax relief more on the middle class and cost less overall.

"We need tax relief," said Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), "but it needs to be immediate, it needs to go to the middle class, and it needs to be a program that doesn't hurt in the long term in the deficit."

Republicans say their first order of business will be legislation to expand unemployment aid to people who have been jobless for so long their benefits have run out. Last year, the issue ended in a stalemate. Republicans were divided about what to do and Bush did nothing to break the impasse. In mid-December, Bush changed course and urged Congress to extend benefits provided under a temporary unemployment program that expired in late December.

Now, even House Republicans, many of whom last year resisted such measures, say the legislation should move through the House in its first week. A senior House Republican aide said the White House is pushing to settle the unemployment fight quickly to save political capital for the larger fight over tax cuts.

"The White House's higher priority is the stimulus package, which is going to be a huge class warfare fight with the Democrats," the aide said. "They would rather get unemployment off the table and bank that as something they did for the working poor."


Stopgap Funding

Also demanding Congress' immediate attention are overdue decisions about funding for domestic programs. Congress last year failed to pass 11 of the 13 appropriations bills needed to finance the government. Domestic programs are operating under a stopgap measure that expires Saturday. Soon after convening, Congress is expected to extend that stopgap bill until the end of January.

That will give negotiators time to draft a final spending bill, which Bush has said he wants finished before his State of the Union address.

John Scofield, spokesman for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, said that is an "ambitious" goal if Congress is to meet Bush's requested budget cap of $750 billion. Many lawmakers of both parties have wanted to spend more.


First Things First

Once last year's budget business is settled, Congress will confront the coming year's budget -- and the deficits that are looming for years to come. Any commitment to reducing the deficit will be challenged by many expensive demands on the Treasury, including Bush's tax-cut plans and the cost of a possible war against Iraq.

Another big-ticket item is legislation to provide prescription drug benefits to Medicare beneficiaries, an initiative both parties have been promising for years. Until this year, there has been enough wiggle room to allow each party to blame the other for the deadlock. Now that Republicans are in control of Congress and the White House, they are under pressure to deliver.

"Our opportunity is that we're in charge of everything; the responsibility is that we have no one else to blame," said Rep. Mark Foley of Florida. "A lot of promises need to be kept, and that's more true than ever for prescription drugs."

The drive will be more complex if, as many Republicans expect, the president seeks to link a new drug benefit to broader reforms of Medicare to make the program more market-oriented. But Foley and others said prospects for action are brighter with the ascendance of Frist, a physician and one of Congress' leading experts on health policy.

Medicare is just one of many issues Republicans will try to free from last year's impasse. They are hoping that an early burst of legislative productivity will buttress their 2000 campaign argument that Democratic control of the Senate had blocked key bills and will dramatize what a difference a GOP-controlled Congress can make.

"That's our main theme: unfinished business," said Robert Traynham, deputy staff director of the Senate Republican Conference.

"We're finishing where the Democrats left off."

Other issues they hope to revive include a backlog of Bush's judicial nominees, a renewal of the landmark 1996 welfare overhaul and Bush's initiative to increase support for social services provided by faith-based institutions.

All those issues take on new meaning in the wake of Lott's resignation over racially divisive comments. To distance themselves from the imbroglio, many Republicans want to underscore how their policies -- such as welfare reform and aid to faith-based charities -- help minority groups.

On the other hand, Democrats plan to step up their opposition to judicial nominees they believe are inadequately attuned to the civil rights movement.

Some GOP sources predict there will be residual tensions between some Senate Republicans and the White House because of perceptions that the White House undercut Lott and forced his resignation.

But with that behind them, other Republicans predict the party will be more united than ever behind the president, with lawmakers' political interests at one with his as the reelection campaigns for 2004 get underway.

"We're very simpatico with the president," said John Feehery, press secretary for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "He did a good job campaigning for us. He still has enormous popularity for his leadership in wartime."

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