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US Senate Republicans and Democrats Outline Competing Agendas

Senate Republicans and Democrats have outlined their respective
legislative agendas for the new congressional year. Their priorities
are very different.

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate say they would like to work in a
bipartisan fashion to solve the country's problems, but they cannot even
agree on what the most important issues are.

The Republican majority believes the most important domestic issue is
reforming the social security retirement system to keep it solvent for
future generations.

Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is a leader in the reform effort.
"I do not think the American public will ultimately stand for a
do-nothing response to social security. I think everyone realizes we
are all living longer, everybody understands the baby boomers are
retiring, everybody understands there are fewer workers to pay for
retiree benefits, and we also understand that if we do not do anything,
either benefits will be cuts or taxes will be raised," he said.

But Democrats argue that there is no crisis in social security, that the
program will remain solvent for at least three or four decades.

They say reforming the nation's health care system should be Congress'
legislative priority. Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said
"in the four years since President Bush started his first term, the
number of uninsured Americans has increased from 40 million to 45
million. The cost of health care has sky-rocketed, and this
administration has done absolutely nothing to address it."

Republicans agree reforming the health care system is important, but
they say other issues deserve priority, including making permanent
President Bush's tax cuts, moving the nation toward energy independence,
and the war on terrorism.

Democrats agree the war on terrorism is important, but they also
emphasize education, employment, and support for U.S. troops.

Democrats argue that Republicans are shortchanging benefits for troops
returning from difficult missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they want
to change that.

Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said "with one out of six,
it is estimated, soldiers who come home, who have some kind of mental or
psychological problem, that is natural, given what they have been
through, we are proposing that mental services be added to veterans'
benefits, and we are making sure that those who come home get adequate
health care and their families do as well."

Republicans insist they are not ignoring the needs of U.S. troops and
their families. On Monday, they introduced legislation that would
increase the one-time tax-free benefit paid to the families of members
of the military killed in the line of duty from $12,400 to $100,000.

Although Democrats have pledged to oppose Republican initiatives when
they run counter to their priorities, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist
issued an appeal to the minority party for bipartisanship. "Will they
fight us tooth and nail on all of our priorities? It is certainly
within their right to do so, but I hope we will continue to reflect our
desire, our willingness to work together," he said.

Democrats and Republicans did come together Monday to approve President
Bush's nominee to become Commerce Secretary. The Senate confirmed by
voice vote Kellogg chief executive Carlos Gutierrez.

Mr. Gutierrez, who fled Cuba with his family when he was a child,
becomes the first Hispanic-American to head the department.

The Senate Tuesday turns its attention to President Bush's nominee to be
Secretary of State. Senators will hold a day-long debate on the
nomination of Condoleezza Rice for the post, with Democrats expected to
use the occasion to criticize Bush administration policy on Iraq. Ms.
Rice, who served as National Security Adviser to President Bush in his
first term, is expected to be confirmed in a vote scheduled Wednesday.
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