The 109th Congress convenes on Tuesday with Republicans flexing more political muscle. Yet it is unclear how far they can, or in some cases want to, push President Bush’s ambitious second-term agenda.
The record federal deficit, the rising cost of the Iraq war, plus competing positions of rival Democrats and even within the Republican Party, all pose risks to such White House goals as overhaul of the federal tax code and the Social Security retirement program.
Still, Bush has high hopes. He sees his re-election, coupled with bigger Republican majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives, as a mandate for his stewardship.
Yet as Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, a member of the House Republican leadership says: “Everything is going to be hard.”
“There are no slam dunks,” Pryce said in discussing Bush’s legislative agenda, which also seeks to revamp immigration laws and obtain a sweeping energy plan.
Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, promises, however, swift action in putting together an aid package for victims of the deadly Asian tsunami. “The challenges of coping with suffering on this magnitude are almost unfathomable,” said Hyde, who chairs the International Relations Committee.
Separately, Bush on Friday pledged $350 million in aid for tsunami victims.
In the Nov. 2 elections, Republicans expanded their majority in the 100-member Senate by four to 55 — five short of the 60 needed to end a Democratic procedural roadblock known as a filibuster. Republicans boosted their majority in the 435-member House by three to 232.
Yet differences cross party lines on such matters as spending priorities, possible additional tax relief, changes to immigration laws and a major restructuring of Social Security.
“I don’t expect a highly productive year (in Congress),” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at The American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think thank.
“Even though Republicans have more numbers — and maybe because they have more numbers — they’re going to have real difficulty coming to agreement among themselves,” Ornstein said.
“Increased numbers in the Senate will make them more pugnacious, but they still don’t have enough to jam things through,” Ornstein said.
Larry Sabato of University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, offers a different view. He predicts a “fairly productive” Congress — for at least half of 2005.
“Historically, a president who is re-elected and adds congressional seats tends to get to get a good six months window of opportunity,” Sabato said.
“That doesn’t mean everything will go smoothly. There will be fights about everything. That’s Washington,” Sabato said.
Bush should move fast, though, Sabato said. Traditionally, he said, lawmakers soon see second-term presidents as “lame ducks” and focus more on their priorities than his.
UNITED ON SOME GOALS
To be sure, Bush and his fellow Republicans are certain to present a united front on some goals, such as putting more conservative judges who oppose abortion on the federal bench.
Congress may also pass legislation Bush seeks to reduce class-action lawsuits, yet there are doubts about passage of a measure to limit medical malpractice lawsuits.
Republicans believe they finally may have the votes to win passage of long-sought legislation to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
They intend to take another crack at a proposed constitutional amendment backed by the White House to ban gay marriage.
While there was plenty of partisan gridlock in the Senate during the past four years, it could get worse in 2005.
That would be likely if Republicans carry out threats to change Senate rules to eliminate filibusters on judicial nominees. Democrats vow to retaliate with other procedural moves that can tie the Senate into knots.
“Republicans would rue the day they changed the rules,” warns incoming Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
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