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New US Congress Returns to Work with Ambitious Agenda

The U.S. Congress formally returns to work Tuesday with an ambitious list of legislative objectives. Republicans in control of the House and Senate hope to move a number of items on President Bush's second term agenda, while Democrats want to begin a process of recovery from losses suffered in last November's election. Meanwhile, lawmakers are also confronting issues of efficiency and reform.

The first days of a new Congress are taken up with housekeeping chores - decisions on changes in rules governing debate, selection of key committee chairmen, and reorganizations that affect how lawmakers oversee the operations of government.

This year, lawmakers once again confront one of the perennial issues facing them, which is how to become more efficient and effective.

Specifically, they are trying to figure out how to streamline the complex web of committees with jurisdiction over U.S. intelligence agencies and homeland security.

The September 11 Commission last year recommended changes in how Congress oversees intelligence activities. But members of Congress are traditionally resistant to what they view as attempts to reduce their power.

Republican Congressman Curt Weldon explains why this change in congressional bureaucracy is needed as it relates to homeland security.

"It is an absolute embarrassment that if you look at the charts on the sides of us, 88 committees and subcommittees of the House and Senate can claim jurisdiction over some aspect of homeland security," he said. "And if you take the combined membership of those 88 committees and subcommittees it comes out to somewhere around 505 members of the House and Senate."

September 11 Commission member and former congressman Lee Hamilton says how Congress organizes itself, and responds to change, is a national security issue.

"When you have an over-riding concern like that, then I think the Congress needs to respond and get its structure into the very best organizational chart it can in order to minimize the risks," he said.

September 11 family members, such as Mary Fetchet, say that having finally passed intelligence reform legislation, Congress now needs to look at itself.

"I would like Congress to look objectively at the systems they are working in," she said. "They are paralyzed by the systems they're working in."

As they tackle the details of such things as the recently approved intelligence reorganization, lawmakers are waiting to hear who President Bush will nominate for the new position of director of national intelligence.

They will also be looking at prospective new members of President Bush's administration.

Later this month, the Senate will hold two days of confirmation hearings for Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice, and will also have to confirm a Secretary of Homeland Security, after President Bush's first choice to replace Tom Ridge withdrew late last year.

Having succeeded in approving intelligence legislation in December, lawmakers remain concerned about the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The White House signaled in December that it would submit another supplemental spending request for military operations in those countries, an amount that could exceed $80 billion.

Congress has already approved more than $200 billion for Afghanistan and Iraq, in various bills since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The urgent need for aid to South Asian tsunami victims is also on the agenda, with the House and Senate expected to approve, and possibly increase, the $350 million President Bush has said would be a minimum U.S. contribution.

In domestic affairs, lawmakers are also looking ahead to what is likely to be the biggest challenge for the new Congress, President Bush's desire to reform the massive U.S. social security system.

In remarks Monday to newly elected members of Congress, President Bush challenged them to help him achieve key aspects of his agenda.

"I think it's important, as we head into a new session, to confront problems, to not pass them on to future Congresses or a future president," he said. "I don't know about what your time frame is for the amount of time you anticipate spending here, but mine is about four more years, and then I'm going home. And so I want to confront problems, and I will. I'll call upon Congress to take on big issues. And I look forward to working with members of both parties to do just that."

One of President Bush's chief complaints about the last Congress was the difficulty he had in getting judicial nominees confirmed by the Senate, where Democrats used legislative techniques to block them.

The Senate will again be in the spotlight this year regarding the likely prospect of at least one vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Senate Republicans led by the majority leader, Bill Frist, have threatened to change that chamber's rules to prevent a minority party from blocking judicial nominees, a move Democrats have warned against.

Immigration reform is another issue left over from last year that is sure to spark more partisan conflict. House Republicans who failed to win immigration law changes as part of intelligence reorganization will try again, saying the steps are needed to help defend against terrorists.

As the 109th Congress convenes, the House of Representatives will have 434 members, of which 232 are Republicans, 201 Democrats and one Independent. Sixty-five House members are women, 41 are African-American, 24 are Hispanic, and three are of Asian descent.

Republicans control the Senate with a 55 to 45 majority over Democrats. This marks the first time Republicans have held control of both houses of Congress for six consecutive two year sessions.