- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2005

Congress is back with a heftier Republican majority and an ambitious, reform-minded agenda that could change how we pay taxes, plan retirement and sue one another.

There are cynics, of course, who still believe our lives, liberties and wallets are safest when Congress isn’t in session. And House and Senate leaders face a lot of work if they are to restore confidence in an institution that has been wasting too much of the money they take from our weekly paychecks. Remember last year’s pork-barrel spending-spree scandal?

There are plenty of reasons to believe that, with the elections behind them, lawmakers will be tougher this year on spending and determined to overhaul programs and laws, such as Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service’s tax code.

Republicans start this session with a beefed-up majority in the Senate, which Democratic filibusters have often turned into a graveyard for House-passed bills that addressed energy independence, tort reform and additional tax cuts.

It was almost impossible to get anything substantive done last year with the GOP’s precarious 51-to-49-seat majority. Now Majority Leader Bill Frist has a 55-to-45 lineup that will make passing bills easier, with the help of seven new Republicans, five of whom replaced Southern Democrats.

This doesn’t mean bill-killing filibusters will end. It does mean they will be harder to maintain. Last week, Mr. Frist gave Democrats fair warning that if they continue to prevent up-or-down votes on President Bush’s judicial nominees (10 of whom were denied a vote), he will use his powers to change the filibuster rule. This time he may have the votes to do it.

The lineup in the House has improved only slightly, with a Republican net gain of three seats, but discipline in Republican ranks is tighter and House rules give the majority party more power to control the agenda and votes.

All this indicates a very productive legislation session is likely in 2005, with President Bush promising to spend whatever political capital he has to enact some big reforms.

The legislative year will start off with the fiscal 2006 budget that White House insiders say will aggressively attack excessive growth in discretionary spending in order to put the government’s fiscal house in order and cut the deficit in half.

Speaker Dennis Hastert has picked veteran California Rep. Jerry Lewis to chair the House Appropriations Committee, with marching orders to get tough on spending.

Stung by widespread criticism of the bloated omnibus spending bill Republicans passed late last year, Republican leaders know they must turn in a better fiscal performance this time.

My bet is they will.

Also look for some early action on legal reform. With health-care costs skyrocketing and doctors giving up medical practices because of huge liability insurance costs, a top priority this year will be curbing excessive lawsuits. Mr. Bush hit the road last week to push for reform, and passage is likely before spring.

The House has routinely passed medical malpractice and class-action lawsuit limits, only to see them blocked in the Senate where they won majority support but not the 60 votes needed to overcome Democratic filibusters. With a strong push from Mr. Bush, the chances are now quite good tort reforms will become law.

In 2001, Mr. Bush had some trouble getting his tax cuts through the Senate, but he faces a much friendlier tax-cutting body there now. All seven new Republican senators, and many of their colleagues, ran on making an insanely complicated tax system simpler and fairer.

When the president’s tax reform commission, which will be announced soon, submits its proposals later this summer, the Senate will be a lot friendlier toward it.

But the big test of the new Congress will be Mr. Bush’s plan to overhaul Social Security to reduce future taxpayer liabilities and allow workers to reap a higher return on their payroll taxes by investing some of it in stocks and bonds.

The biggest news: The GOP expanded its majorities in both houses, despite a barrage of Democratic attacks on Mr. Bush’s Social Security reform plans. The elections showed the idea is hugely popular with workers, which is why some kind of bill will likely pass in this session of Congress.

There still may be ups and downs this year for the GOP’s congressional leadership. Given stronger majorities in each chamber, the political pressure will be more intense than ever for them to deliver the votes. But I think they’re up to the task.

What about next year’s legislative prospects? That’s when Congress will focus on the 2006 election — and all bets are off.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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