- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

In his State of the Union address last week, President Bush challenged the legislative branch. “Congress has some unfinished business,” he said, and during the hour-long speech listed policies on homeland security, taxes, job training, legal reform and government-spending control that he wants prioritized on Capitol Hill. As the leader of the party that controls both the White House and Congress, Mr. Bush can direct the 2004 legislative agenda to a large extent. But with a divided legislature, especially in the Senate, some important but controversial bills face an uphill battle.

The president hasn’t hesitated to hit the street to push his program. On Monday in Little Rock, he made a plea for Congress to cap awards for medical malpractice suits and to limit punitive damages. The American Medical Association supports the plan, but trial lawyers — who receive as much as 40 percent of malpractice settlement awards — are fighting against it. Last year, Senate Democrats killed the package and are likely to do so again this year. Republican leadership plans to salvage some medical-reform elements by breaking up last year’s comprehensive legislation into smaller bills. A major Republican theme in 2004 will be to decrease the number of uninsured through tax credits, health-savings accounts and allowing small businesses to band together to get lower insurance rates.

One important legal reform that Republican leadership lists as “a high priority” is curbing damages against corporations for asbestos complaints. More than 600,000 asbestos claims have been filed against more than 6,000 companies, which have spent more than $50 billion on litigation to date. This is a major drag on the economy and has cost thousands of jobs. Today, Republican strategists give it “a little bit better than a 50-50 chance” of passing. Last year, Democrats were able to block the bill. A senior source in the former asbestos industry told The Washington Times that he hopes the Republican Senate will make an all-out push for passage this year, after what he judged to be less than a maximum effort in 2003.

Rounding out the jobs issues, the Senate today is expected to strengthen the pension system by adjusting the formula companies use to determine payments. In the next couple of weeks, leaders hope to reduce the potential for plaintiff abuse in class-action lawsuits and are looking to take action to reauthorize highway spending before the current law expires on Feb. 28. As is often the case, there is currently a raging dispute going on over the formula through which some states are allocated more highway funding than others. This controversy will have to be resolved before Republicans move the bill.

Shortly after the State of the Union address, the president announced his goal to freeze federal spending not associated with homeland security or the military. While promising to enforce discipline over discretionary spending sounds responsible and assuages conservatives who are increasingly worried about deficit spending, it is not clear how the idea can succeed. Republican congressional leaders are ready to try to enact the president’s needed initiative, but they are short on specifics.

Historically, it has been harder to enact a spending freeze than to propose it. Some big federal programs will grow, which means that others will have to be cut. Countless tough appropriations choices would have to be made, which will face strong resistance from members looking to deliver for their constituents during the campaign cycle.

After early spring, it becomes increasingly difficult to pass legislation during an election year, especially with Democrats employing an obstructionist strategy. However, Mr. Bush could push for an autumn Senate fight on one or two popular bills, as he did over creation of the Homeland Security Department before the 2002 election. Senate Democrats, who lost seats in 2002, might again resist the president’s agenda at their electoral peril.

Major legislation that is unlikely to be addressed this year includes making the Bush tax cuts permanent and renewing Patriot Act provisions. Senate leaders do not view the energy bill as dead yet, but admit that finding the votes for cloture could be months away. It looks to be a tough year both on the campaign trail and in the halls of Congress.

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