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Senate Democrats coordinate message, attack on Bush

Parties declare their priorities

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats yesterday unveiled plans to push for expanded healthcare and education programs, higher troop levels, and better benefits for veterans, as they use a retooled and coordinated communications strategy to push their priorities and gird for fierce fights against major initiatives on President Bush's agenda.

Democratic leaders said they will focus on bills they believe have the backing of a majority of Americans. Their list of priorities also includes better equipment for troops in combat, allowing lower-priced prescription drugs to enter the United States from Canada, and an end to tax breaks for companies that move jobs overseas.

"The proposals we are talking about are far closer to what the American people want," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat. "We are talking about the meat-and-potatoes issues people care about. . . . They [Republicans] are off on an ideological junket."

The new session is opening amid signs of uncommon Democratic unity in the Senate. Minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada used a news conference on Democrats' legislative priorities to boast that majority leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, "wishes every day" that his members were as united as Democrats.

For the first time, the 44 Democratic senators are coordinating their media messages through a centralized Senate Democratic Communications Center. The new center has its "war room" in an office on the Capitol's third floor, where staff members send out daily talking points to Democratic press secretaries, line up radio and television interviews with senators, and issue "rapid-response" news releases in the style of political campaigns.

The center has an aide dedicated to getting information to Democratic-leaning bloggers and yesterday launched a website, democrats.gov, to better communicate the positions of Senate Democrats.

Democrats in the Senate have already shown a willingness to flex their muscles on major issues. This week, they are holding up the nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, even though she is expected to win easy confirmation, to keep the focus on questionable decisions made by the Bush administration in pursuing the war in Iraq.

On Friday, a newly formed Democratic Committee on Oversight and Investigations will hold its first hearing, in an attempt to highlight areas and issues that the Republicans are not willing to. The initial hearing will focus on whether Bush's contention that the Social Security system is in crisis is accurate.

Reid said Senate Democrats do not consider Bush's victory over Senator John F. Kerry to have been a statement in support of Bush's policies, and will continue to fight for their own values.

"Let's not get carried away with the 'mandate' of President Bush," Reid said. "There is no mandate, and the issues that Senator Kerry ran on . . . are good issues."

Republican leaders yesterday also unveiled their own priorities for the current Senate session, and it included several items that suggest big battles are ahead. Item one on the list is Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security for younger workers; Democrats are promising to fight any benefit cuts.

Other Senate Republican priorities include making the recent rounds of tax cuts permanent, limiting the scope of class-action lawsuits, and outlawing the transportation of a minor across state lines with the purpose of skirting state laws requiring parental consent to have an abortion.

Frist also promised that Republicans will again seek to approve a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Last year, the supporters came up 19 votes short of moving the amendment forward in the Senate, but they are hopeful that votes in 13 states to limit marriage to heterosexual couples will persuade enough lawmakers to change their minds.

The Republican leader said his party's members are coming into the session with the American people on their side, and appealed to his Democratic colleagues to acknowledge that in seeking compromises.

"I do think that the American people spoke pretty loudly in these elections in terms of their support for this president and this Republican Congress, Senate and House, and in support of an agenda that is consistent with the one that we laid out today," Frist said.

Democrats lost three Senate seats in November -- including that of Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who was the minority leader -- and some observers expected Democratic senators to enter the year chastened and willing to compromise with the president. The selection of Reid as minority leader contributed to that perception, since the Nevada senator is considered a political moderate -- he opposes abortion and supports the rights of gun owners -- who would be willing to work with Bush.

But in the early days of Bush's second term, the Senate is emerging as the power center where the Bush agenda will face the toughest opposition. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are necessary to close out debate on most subjects, meaning a determined and united minority can halt proceedings and hold up a bill in the legislative body.

Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said, "It's going to be very difficult for a lot of members who represent states the president carried by a big number to come here and say their job is to oppose the president on everything he wants to do."

Ken Mehlman, new chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Democrats appear more interested in "blocking the American people's priorities" than in providing leadership.

"It's clear that Reid and the Democrats would rather engage in partisan politics than work for their constituents," Mehlman said.

Democrats say they are realistic about the prospects of their priorities becoming law.

"The honeymoon is over, and we are now in the throes of the new marital agreement," said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip. "We can count -- it's 55-45 [including the Senate's lone independent, who often votes with the Democrats]. But the agenda that we lay out today is a suggestion of our vision."

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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