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US Congress Begins New Session

The 109th Congress convened for the first time Tuesday. Republicans boosted their majority in the 100-member Senate as a result of November's election. They now have 55 seats. And they slightly increased their majority in the 435-member House of Representatives. But President Bush is not expected to have a "rubber stamp" (compliant) Congress that will automatically enact his legislation.

The 109th Congress may be more Republican than the last, but political analysts say this new session could be one of the most contentious in years. Congress will be addressing controversial issues such as social security reform, nominations to the Supreme Court, and an overhaul of the tax code.

John Fortier, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute research group in Washington D.C., says President Bush is likely to face resistance to his ambitious agenda. "Even though there was a good-sized victory for him considering how close we thought the election would be, and some pickups in Congress, it's still pretty narrow majorities. He's going to have to hold together Republicans, both in the House and the Senate. And there are times in Congress when the body, the institution, wants to be independent. There may be conservative Republicans who want to spend less money or who want to oppose him on immigration," he said.

Some may also oppose Mr. Bush's radical proposal to change Social Security, the decades-old government retirement program, in favor of private savings accounts. His proposal could cost as much as $2 trillion, and analysts say some Republicans are concerned about adding to the record budget deficit.

Most Democrats consider Social Security a vital part of their party platform and are unlikely to support Mr. Bush's program.

Allen Schick, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution research group in Washington D.C., says Mr. Bush cannot expect his plan to pass easily. "To win on Social Security, he has to take his case to the public because there's going to be an advertisement blitz from the other side as well, major lobbying groups, interest groups are gearing up for an advertising campaign and Bush is going to carry his case to the people across the country. He cannot win in Congress if he doesn't win in the country," he said.

The president is planning to conduct such a campaign. Another looming battle in the Senate this session: nominations to the Supreme Court. One Supreme Court justice is battling cancer and may soon retire. Mr. Schick says there are still enough Democratic Party senators to hold a filibuster--using delaying tactics--to block a conservative court nominee. "The courts are major policymakers in the United States. They don't just resolve disputes, they, in effect, change society and the Democrats don't want some of the changes introduced over the last 20 years to be rolled back by a Republican-controlled judiciary," he said.

Other priorities for Mr. Bush include income tax reforms, limits on malpractice lawsuits, and a plan for oil exploration in Alaska.

But Mr. Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute says second-term presidents traditionally have very few legislative achievements. "Second term, you tend to lose support from your party, you have greater opposition from the other side. As the term goes on, everyone knows that you're term-limited, you're term-limited to two terms, you're going to be gone soon. The bureaucracy knows it can wait you out; Congress can wait you out," he said.

And members of the House, who have to run for re-election every two years, may find it useful to oppose the president. Mr. Fortier says Mr. Bush's best chance of success will come in this term of Congress--between now and next August.