Republicans in Congress will have a hard time enacting major spending cuts or comprehensive immigration reform this year, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum told The Washington Times.
Republican leadership will, however, force votes on a host of thorny social issues such as a constitutional amendment that would ban homosexual “marriage” before the elections in November.
“Certainly, we want to have these votes on record before the election,” said the conservative Pennsylvania Republican, who faces a tough re-election this year.
“There will be issues relating to life, child-custody protection. The stem-cell issue is eventually something we’re going to have to vote on,” Mr. Santorum said in an interview this week. “There will be a lot of issues relating to stem cells that the pro-life community would like to vote on.”
The news comes as polls show conservatives growing increasingly frustrated with Republicans in Congress for their failure to make good on promises to cut spending and toughen immigration laws.
In the interview, the No. 3 Senate Republican also laid out his party’s agenda for the year, titled “Securing America’s Freedom, Homeland and Borders.” The broad platform aims to, among other things, deal with immigration and runaway federal spending.
But the prognosis for comprehensive immigration reform and significant cuts to federal entitlement programs this year, he said, isn’t so bright.
“We barely had the votes to pass the bill we did last year,” Mr. Santorum said of last year’s legislation that cut $40 billion out of programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. “In an election year, it’s just very, very tough.”
Though he faces a popular statewide official in November, Mr. Santorum said he would be happy to vote for another round of cuts to entitlements this year.
“I think we need to do more,” he said. “Controlling the size and growth of government is exactly what Republicans are all about.”
Just last year, Republicans led by President Bush created a whole new entitlement program to provide prescription drugs to seniors. Mr. Santorum said it was “legitimate criticism that we were not fiscally responsible,” but defended the program as “essential.”
Immigration reforms face similar obstacles, he said.
“The conference would like to do a comprehensive bill,” he said, referring to legislation that includes both border security measures and a program to deal with illegal aliens in the U.S.
“It’s going to be very, very difficult to pass because we haven’t gained the confidence of the American public that we’re serious about what they believe is the bigger of the two issues, which is securing the borders,” he said.
In the end, Mr. Santorum said, the Senate will probably approve an immigration bill that includes a guest-worker bill, which will meet with stiff opposition in the more conservative House, where lawmakers are demanding border security-only legislation.
Senate aides have told The Washington Times that Majority Leader Bill Frist will introduce a bill, possibly as early as today, that deals solely with border security.
In addition to immigration and spending, Senate Republicans will also focus this year on education, health care and energy independence.
“‘Securing America’s Future’ is the whole crux of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Mr. Santorum said. “We just thought it was very important to have a positive agenda, a substantive agenda that ties together what we’ve heard from folks back as to their concerns about the future of this county.”
One area of concern will be improving “competitiveness in math, science and engineering,” he said. “I’m going to be introducing a bill this week on it. Others are going to introduce legislation to try to improve the quality of education from the standpoint of making our work force more competitive in the years ahead.”
Senate Republicans also plan to expand health savings accounts (HSA).
“We hope to do, this spring, everything from medical liability reform to small business health-plan reform,” he said. “And then further expansion of HSAs, which have shown that about a third of all the folks who have signed up for HSAs were previously uninsured. We want to expand that to create better access to health insurance.”