Social Security changes and judicial appointments loom large in 2005.
WASHINGTON -- The 109th Congress will convene Tuesday with pageantry and pleasantries, but two lurking, potentially explosive issues could turn it into one of the most partisan and contentious sessions in recent times.
Just as judicial nominations have become unusually divisive, senators are anticipating the first Supreme Court vacancy in more than a decade. And President Bush is proposing significant changes to Social Security, the popular entitlement program that many Democrats consider a vital and inviolable legacy of their party.
The new Congress will address hundreds of other questions, such as whether to limit civil liabilities, rewrite immigration laws and drill for oil in an Alaskan refuge. But politicians from left to right agree that those issues cannot rock the Capitol like the battles over the high court and the federal retirement program.
"Those are going to be the two epic fights in 2005" said Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union.
Aides said Bush plans to kick off the Social Security debate with a major speech even before his second inauguration Jan. 20, then will try to keep up the pressure on Congress with a series of road trips that will include stops in areas with heavy concentrations of seniors so he can assure them they could not lose their checks under his proposal. Signaling his plans to work for all the major parts of his agenda, Bush will fly Wednesday to Illinois to make his case for medical liability reform, part of a suite of changes to laws governing lawsuits that the Senate plans to take up early in the year.
In many respects, the 109th Congress will resemble the 108th, which adjourned last month. Republicans again control the White House as well as both chambers of Congress, though by relatively small margins. Outwardly, the 435-member House has barely changed, with Republicans gaining three seats in November and both parties keeping their leadership teams in place.
The Nov. 2 elections brought more change to the 100-seat Senate. Republicans netted four additional seats, boosting their once-tiny majority to a more comfortable 55 and, in the process, ousting the Democrats' leader of the past decade, Tom Daschle of South Dakota. But Democrats still hold enough seats to mount filibusters, the delaying strategy that requires 60 votes to halt. With Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80, battling thyroid cancer, Senate Democrats soon may face a high-stakes decision on whether to filibuster a Supreme Court nomination, a move certain to ignite a ferocious fight with Bush and Republican senators.
Democrats in 2004 used filibusters to block 10 conservative appellate court nominees whom they said were outside the political mainstream. Frist has called the practice intolerable and threatened to rule that filibusters against judicial nominees are unconstitutional. Democrats say they would respond with an avalanche of parliamentary maneuvers that would bring the entire Senate to a halt.
For now, both parties are playing a game of political chicken, unwilling to signal their intentions or temper their threats.