Monday, February 19, 2007

Senate Republicans have pledged to fight for up-or-down votes on President Bush’s judicial nominees and to make his tax cuts permanent, but they face an uphill battle in pushing their agenda.

Republican leaders have outlined seven issues they plan to highlight in the shadow of the Democratic majority, which has its own priorities and the power to bring them to the floor.

“Obviously, in the minority we don’t get to set the agenda, but we expect to be offering our ideas” in the form of amendments to other proposals, said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona said his party unanimously agreed on a set of guiding principles and revealed them in advance of forthcoming legislative specifics.

Mr. Kyl called the seven principles a “good starting point” Thursday as lawmakers prepared for a weeklong recess. In addition to judges and tax cuts, the broad principles promise a commitment to “fiscal restraint” and to fight the war on terrorism, among other things.

“We are committed not only to effectively communicating our vision for the nation but also demonstrating through debate and legislative action that Republican ideas are better for America,” Mr. Kyl said.

Democrats weren’t sure what to make of the Republican plan.

“There’s very little to quibble with because much of it comes straight out of the Democratic agenda,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

As for judicial nominees, Mr. Reid has promised to quickly hold votes on “consensus” candidates.

“But if the president sends us divisive, right-wing ideologues, he can expect to face trouble in the Senate,” Mr. Manley said.

Democrats have blocked many of Mr. Bush’s nominees using a filibuster.

Among the other examples of legislation Mr. Kyl said may result from the Republican principles:

• Attempting to make the Bush tax cuts permanent;

• Supporting Mr. Bush’s plan to increase the size of the military;

• Pushing earmark reform;

• Expanding domestic oil production and alternative energy research.

Another of the seven issues is related to health care. Republicans say they will propose creation of small-business health-insurance plans, expansion of health savings accounts and support for the health care tax plan Mr. Bush promoted in his State of the Union address last month, with the idea “all Americans can receive quality health care.”

“It’s not enough just to play defense. You need to have a positive agenda that you believe in and that you’re going to fight for,” said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican.

One of the thornier issues at the bottom of the Republican agenda is immigration reform.

Last year, 23 Senate Republicans faced wrath from conservatives for joining Democrats to pass a “comprehensive” immigration plan that opponents said rewards illegal aliens.

Mr. Kyl said members learned from the November elections, and he thinks both parties are “committed” to dealing with an immigration plan.

“We are all reformulating our views on how to proceed with this,” he said, noting broad Republican support for securing the border and making sure workplaces follow immigration law.

Mr. Manley said when the Senate returns from recess it will likely consider implementing the remainder of the September 11 commission recommendations, passing changes to the prescription-drug program and funding for embryonic stem-cell research. All three measures have already passed the House.

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