New Congress Faces Some Old Issues

The 109th Congress opens at noon on Tuesday. Here’s a look at the top issues for President Bush and the Republicans who control both the House and Senate:

SOCIAL SECURITY: The president says the nation’s retirement system is in crisis and needs to be fixed immediately to keep it solvent. Although details are sketchy, Bush wants Congress to approve a plan that would allow workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes into private accounts. Democratic critics say there’s no crisis and argue the president is out to privatize the system.

TAXES: Fulfilling a pledge he made in his campaign, Bush wants to make his tax cuts permanent and overhaul the federal tax code. The president wants a commission to study tax changes and make recommendations later this year. Although Bush has yet to endorse a proposal, ideas being discussed in Washington include a national sales tax or a flat income tax to replace the current multi-tiered income tax system.

JURY AWARDS: With juries awarding multimillion-dollar verdicts, Bush says the current judicial system is too much like a lottery. He wants Congress to approve a plan that would put a cap on jury awards. Bush has criticized the Senate for not acting on a House-approved plan that would cap noneconomic damages for pain and suffering at $250,000.

JUDGES: Bush is likely to get a chance to appoint a Supreme Court justice. Chief Judge William Rehnquist, 80, is being treated for thyroid cancer and is expected to retire. There has not been an opening on the high court since 1994.

DEFICIT: With the Congressional Budget Office projecting a budget deficit of $348 billion in the current budget year, Bush is promising to cut the deficit in half in the next five years. With war costs mounting, spending cuts are expected in many domestic programs when Bush presents his new budget to Congress on Feb. 7.

TRADE: Congress is expected to take up the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which the Bush administration signed last May. The treaty would open up a free trade zone between the United States and Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Backers say it will open duty-free markets to U.S. products. Critics say it would be disastrous for U. S. farmers, who would have to compete with added imports of cheap sugar cane.

ENERGY: Turmoil in the Mideast and blackouts that left 50 million Americans without power in August 2003 led to calls for comprehensive legislation to increase the nation’s energy independence. But a final bill has been stymied by disputes over drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), legal protections for makers of the gasoline additive MTBE, a suspected carcinogen, and new oil and gas industry subsidies. The Bush administration is expected to continue its push for energy legislation, including drilling in Alaska.