Not a rubber-stamp Congress
House and Senate convene today with Bush ascendant. But key players also have own agendas.
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Now, the job of getting that agenda back on track falls to Sen. Bill Frist, who replaces Democrat Tom Daschle as Senate majority leader. Famously energetic and an accomplished surgeon before running for the Senate in 1994, Mr. Frist brings a fresh face to the GOP leadership, but not much legislative experience. Some colleagues have never seen him chair a meeting.Skip to next paragraph
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He's also unusually close to the White House, where he has worked closely with President Bush on health policy and campaign strategy for the midterm elections.
But colleagues in the GOP caucus will also be looking to Frist to defend the interests of the Senate, even as he advances a Republican agenda. That may mean taking on the White House early on.
"There is going to be a point where Frist is going to have to assert the independence of the Senate on some issue ... to demonstrate to his colleagues that his judgment on the inner workings of the Senate is what counts and not the views of the White House," says Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation in Washington
Many GOP committee chairs, too, are staking out their own agendas for the new Congress.
The most freewheeling and visible of them is Mr. McCain, who has already announced an ambitious schedule of hearings for the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee on issues ranging from cable rates to corporate governance.
On global warming, the bill McCain is sponsoring with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, is encouraging to environmental groups that had expected nothing but bad news from a GOP-controlled Congress.
"A lot of people in our community were anticipating that the only political energy out there would be focused at rolling back environmental protection," says Joseph Goffman of Environmental Defense, a Washington lobby.
Another chairman with a strong record of independence is Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, an outspoken critic of executive branch efforts to keep information from Congress and the public. As new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he expects to pass on up to 70 percent of the major issues before the Senate.
In 2001, he and ranking member Max Baucus (D) of Montana defied the leadership of both their parties by reaching agreement on a $1.35 trillion tax cut - below the $1.6 trillion the White House had proposed but well above what the Democratic leadership was prepared to accept. The bill that came out of their committee passed the Senate with 12 Democratic votes.
Does Grassley expect the White House to set the agenda for a new Congress? "Absolutely not. Nothing gets done in the Senate if it's not bipartisan," he says, adding that a strong "working relationship with Senator Baucus" will be "the basis of all we do."
Also with quiet clout in the new Senate is Richard Lugar of Indiana, who takes over as chairman of the Foreign Relations committee. A consensus builder with deep experience in foreign affairs, he plans committee hearings to focus the Bush administration's attention on the resources needed to rebuild Iraq after a possible war or UN-monitored disarmament. "The point of the hearings ... is to stimulate that planning on the part of our government," he said in a Dec. 19 briefing for foreign press.