- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

Senate Republicans yesterday promised to quickly take care of last year's unfinished legislative business, including drilling for oil in Alaska, passing prescription drug coverage and approving judicial nominations that Democrats have blocked in committee.
They also pledged to pass the 11 overdue appropriations bills at President Bush's requested funding level, which is $9.2 billion less than senators originally had planned. The bills are now more than three months overdue. The fiscal year began Oct. 1.
Republicans met for their first extended conference to map out their plans yesterday, and leaders told reporters they are committed to five priorities: boosting the economy, handling national security threats, providing prescription drug coverage in Medicare, working on education and passing an energy bill.
The first big test is shaping up on judicial nominees.
Mr. Bush on Tuesday sent to the Senate a list of 31 nominees, including U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr., who the president wants to elevate to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Democrats last year defeated Judge Pickering's nomination in the Judiciary Committee, charging that his record was racially divisive. Republicans said this year will be different.
"I'm optimistic that A) he will get to the floor, and B) he will be confirmed by the full Senate," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican and new assistant majority leader.
Republicans also are preparing for a fight about the president's stimulus proposal, with House Republicans saying they will put their own imprint on it but that they expect to be able to pass something close to what Mr. Bush has proposed.
Yesterday, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, called it a "bold base line," indicating he will shoot for an even bigger package.
"Trusting the American people by offering incentives to risk-takers, investors and entrepreneurs is the proven path to economic growth," he said.
But Senate Democrats say the battles on the judges and, particularly, on the stimulus package, are invigorating them as the opposition party.
"Democrats are extraordinarily united, far more united than we've been at any time in recent years, about the inadvisability of the plan offered by the Bush administration," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.
He said the Bush administration has "acted extraordinarily irresponsibly" by proposing such a big plan, particularly when the nation may be about to find itself at war.
Democrats aren't united on an alternative, though.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, yesterday proposed a tax increase to help stem the growing budget deficit. He wants a 1 percent value-added tax on purchases other than food and prescription drugs, which he said could raise $40 billion per year for Social Security and homeland security spending.
House Democrats have their own proposal, which would send billions of dollars to the states for homeland security and infrastructure, and would give immediate tax rebates to all American earners regardless of whether they earn enough to pay taxes.
But Mr. Hollings called that "low-fat tax cuts" and blamed them for playing the same "2004 campaign baloney" as Republicans.
In addition to the economy, Republicans are promising another fight on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
Democrats did not include such a provision in the energy bill they brought to the floor last year, and they filibustered to block its inclusion.
In the end, a bill passed without a drilling provision, but House and Senate negotiators were unable to agree on a compromise version.
Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, said his party will take a different procedural route this year and will fight for the drilling provisions.
"ANWR would have come out of the committee when the Democrats controlled it, had there been a vote in committee," he said. "We will go through the committee process, and there will certainly be enough votes to get a strong, comprehensive energy bill through that's needed for this country."
ANWR and some of the other priorities could be passed as attachments to the budget, which could help Republicans avoid Democratic filibusters.
Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican and the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the pressure is on his party to get results early.
"One of the key factors in how we do in November of 2004 will be determined a great deal by how we do in the first six months of this year," he said.
"People will see the Republicans don't care to just be in power to be in power, but to be there to help and positively impact the lives of all Americans."
Democrats on Tuesday presented a package of a dozen bills that constitutes their focus for the beginning of the session.
Among the bills are legislation to expand hate-crimes laws, raise the minimum wage, address global warming and create a prescription drug benefit.
"As we start this new year, we're energized in the belief that we have very, very critical battles to fight and important positions to take on the Senate floor," Mr. Daschle said.

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