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With GOP in charge, focus shifts to tax cuts, energy, judges

Monday, November 11, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans are pulling out wish lists that grew tattered and faded over the past 17 months and busily underlining and highlighting and prioritizing. Among their favorites: cutting taxes, approving conservative judges, and drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness.

By early next year, the Republicans will once again be running it all -- the White House and both chambers of Congress -- as they did during President Bush's first few months in office.

Ideas that seemed like pie in the sky while Democrats controlled the Senate suddenly look doable again.

That does not mean it will be easy. The Senate remains closely divided, and Democrats can use parliamentary maneuvers to delay and even block bills.

Many of the president's initiatives have been passed by the House, only to languish in the Senate, which shifted to Democratic control after Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords defected from the GOP to become an independent in 2001.

Among the ideas seeing new life since Republicans swept the midterm elections last week:

Taxes and economy

A major goal for Bush is making permanent $1.35 trillion in tax cuts that were enacted last year and are set to expire in 2010. They include lower income tax rates and a phase-out of the estate tax.

To help revive the economy, Bush wants legislation that would include government-backed terrorism insurance, meant to free up billions of dollars worth of construction projects put on hold for lack of private coverage.

The legislation might also include Republican proposals for more tax relief for businesses, to spur investment; new deductions to help investors with losses from the plunging stock market; and incentives to enhance retirement savings.

There will be little traction now for Democrats' ideas in this kind of measure, such as increasing the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits.

Anti-terrorismA new Homeland Security Department to guard against terrorists may break free from the Senate now. The idea has been ensnared in a partisan battle over Bush's insistence that the agency's 170,000 workers be exempt from collective bargaining rights. Bush angered Democrats by accusing them of putting special interests -- the unions -- ahead of Americans' security.

The change in leadership may also be reflected in investigations of intelligence failures before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas one of the CIA's strongest defenders, is expected to become chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Iraq

Congress has backed Bush on the possible use of force in Iraq, and the election results will further strengthen his hand if he decides to go to war.

Judges

More conservative judges could soon be sitting on federal courts. After months of complaining that Democrats were holding up the president's judicial nominations, Republicans are planning ways to quickly push dozens of candidates for judgeships through the Senate. They also hope to revive two appeals court nominations that were rejected by the Judiciary Committee -- cases that Bush cited in the campaign to portray the Democrats as obstructionists.

Energy

The odds have improved somewhat for Bush's plan to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, but Democrats could still block it with a filibuster. Other energy policies left in limbo because of disagreements between the House and Senate now will probably be decided along Republican lines -- with more focus on energy production and less on conservation.

Prescription drugs

Both parties want to expand prescription drug coverage for the elderly. The issue was prominent during the 2000 elections but got bogged down in Congress, with Democrats pushing for a more expensive plan with better benefits.

Social Security

Prospects look better for partial privatization of Social Security, an issue that all but disappeared when the high-flying stock market took a nosedive. The volatile market aside, Bush and congressional Republicans still hope to allow younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into 401(k)-style investment accounts. Democrats oppose the plan as too risky for workers who rely on Social Security as their safety net.


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