Senate Republican leaders outlined their 10 top legislative priorities yesterday, focusing mainly on cutting taxes and restructuring Social Security. But two notable omissions -- changes to immigration laws and a ban on same-sex marriage -- underscored tensions with their conservative wing.
Senate Democrats announced their own priorities, including increases in military personnel, the minimum wage and education spending. But with Democrats having lost seats in both chambers last fall, the GOP is better positioned to move its agenda aggressively in the newly formed 109th Congress.
The Senate Republicans' top 10 list calls for adding private accounts to Social Security, extending President Bush's tax cuts, limiting personal-injury lawsuits and expanding domestic oil exploration. But GOP Senate leaders moved cautiously on more contentious issues, including abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration.
Although their House counterparts are preparing to offer anti-terrorism legislation that includes broad crackdowns on illegal immigration, Senate Republicans did not mention immigration in the legislative agenda they outlined for reporters yesterday. With several Republican senators supporting expanded guest-worker programs, "we don't have a consensus" in the Senate GOP caucus, said its third-ranking leader, Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.).
A proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage -- a priority to many conservative activists -- also was omitted from the list of bills that will be numbered S1 through S10, signifying their importance to Republicans. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said the marriage provision will be designated Senate Joint Resolution 1, "because it's not a legislative bill, it's a joint resolution."
In practical terms, the distinction means little. A proposed constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and the House, and it must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures. The proposed amendment to bar same-sex marriage, which proponents re-introduced yesterday, fell far short of the needed House and Senate margins last year, and many lawmakers say it will fare no better in the new Congress. Frist said the amendment will reach the Senate floor eventually, although it might be in 2006.
As thousands of marchers outside the Capitol called for an end to legalized abortion, Republican leaders offered a more modest proposal. Senate Bill 8 would make it a crime to transport a minor to obtain an abortion in a state that, unlike her home state, does not require her parents to be notified.
Frist said the GOP agenda "will work towards securing a safer America, a stronger America, a freer America, a healthier America and a more prosperous America." Aside from changes to Social Security and tax policies, it would encourage vaccine production and other responses to a possible biological attack; steer most class-action lawsuits to federal courts, which often grant smaller awards than state courts; and encourage greater energy production, including nuclear energy.
Senate Democrats, in their Capitol news conference, derided the GOP agenda. The Republicans' only solution to the nation's challenges, said Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), is "give people tax cuts. Let them fend for themselves."
The Democrats' top 10 list includes: allowing prescription drugs to be imported; creating national standards for federal elections; restoring overtime pay benefits to workers who lost them under a 2004 labor rules change; adding as many as 40,000 military troops by 2007; improving veterans' benefits; increasing Pell Grants and other college tuition subsidies; and increasing access to family planning services and insurance coverage of birth control products.