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Post-Lott Controversy, 2003 Congress Ready to Focus on Agenda - 2002-12-21

A new Republican-led Congress is to be seated in January, and the party leadership is hoping the controversy over Senator Trent Lott is now over. With their party in control of the White House, Republican lawmakers have planned an ambitious legislative agenda. But Democrats vow to aggressively push their own legislative priorities.

Now that Senator Trent Lott has decided to step aside as Majority Leader of the Senate, fellow Republicans are hoping the controversy over his racially-divisive remarks has come to an end and they can focus on legislative priorities.

Mr. Lott sparked a political firestorm on December 5 when he said the nation would have been better off had it elected segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond president in 1948.

Senate Republicans are relieved Mr. Lott is resigning his leadership post.

"My concern was that if we did not make a change in leadership and find someone as leader who accurately portrays our beliefs, our principles and our ideals, that we would be mired with inaction rather than moving forward as we need to do in January, whether it is tax cuts to spur job growth, prescription drug coverage, whether it is medicare, whether it is the war on terrorism, we need to be moving forward as Republicans," said Senator George Allen of Virginia.

Republican senators are to choose a successor to Mr. Lott before the new Senate convenes on January 7. In the meantime, they are planning an agenda that has protecting the nation's security as its top priority.

Mr. Lott addressed the matter before his political difficulties began.

"The areas of course that we will continue to focus on will include national security, because everything else depends on our ability to defend ourselves abroad and at home, to preserve peace and security in the homeland is critical," he said.

Democrats have already begun challenging the White House for not requesting more money for local officials responsible for homeland security.

"Our firefighters and local law enforcement agents still, more than a year later, do not have the proper equipment to respond to a chemical or biological attack, and they do not even have the communications systems that will allow them to talk to each other police department to fire department across municipal and country lines in an emergency," said Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.

While homeland security will likely dominate Congress's agenda in the coming year, so will possible war with Iraq. Democrats, such as Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, say U.S.-led military action against Iraq will mean other issues may not get addressed.

"We should tell the American people, and I am prepared to do it and support it: if in fact we are forced to go into Iraq for his [Saddam Hussein's] failure to comply, with other nations we go in, [then] say goodbye for a while to a new permanent tax cut; say goodbye for a while to significant increases in health care funding; say goodbye for a while to a whole lot of things," he said.

Democrats are opposed to Mr. Bush's desire to make permanent a 10-year, $1.3 trillion tax cut passed last year. For the Democrats, what to do to bolster the sagging U.S. economy tops their agenda. It is an issue on which they believe Mr. Bush is vulnerable as he prepares for a likely re-election bid in 2004.

In the Senate, while Republicans control the chamber by a narrow margin, Democrats have the power to block legislation. Democrats are well aware that the majority party lacks the 60 votes needed cut off delaying tactics that could derail legislative measures. They have signaled they will not hesitate to use such tactics to try to stop initiatives that they oppose.

Part of VOA's yearend series