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Democrats sense opportunity in Congress, announce agenda

WASHINGTON—Congressional Democrats unveiled a legislative agenda Monday, topped by a proposal to reduce the number of abortions through higher spending on family planning.

Although they are a minority in the House and Senate, the Democrats sense an opportunity to push their own vision at a time when President Bush and Republicans appear bogged down and divided in fights over Social Security, ethics and the judiciary.

The Democratic agenda calls for expanded veterans' benefits, fiscal discipline to reduce the federal deficit, cheaper gasoline and tightening corporate tax laws.

Democratic leaders said Monday they would exploit Senate rules and repeatedly seek votes on those proposals if Republicans vote to restrict the use of the filibuster, the parliamentary maneuver that Democrats have used to block 10 of Bush's judicial candidates.

The release of the nine-point plan reflects a desire by Democrats to counter Republican criticism that they are nay-saying obstructionists. It also illustrates the Democrats' continuing search for a winning middle ground in American politics.

With little chance of actually passing in the Republican controlled Congress, the Democratic plan serves more as a political document that attempts to portray Democrats as more in touch with average Americans than Republicans.

The Democratic-backed bills would guarantee overtime pay for workers, increase the minimum wage, help pay tuition for college students and require spending measures and tax cuts be paid for with either increased revenue or program cuts elsewhere.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats have threatened to slow the Senate's work to a crawl if Republicans change Senate rules to bar filibusters on judicial nominees. But on Monday, Reid and Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, took pains to stress that they did not intend to "shut down" the Senate.

Republicans were quick to dismiss the Democratic plan as simply a new way to obstruct the Senate's work.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's spokesman, Bob Stevenson, said in mid-March Reid sent a letter to Frist warning him that if Republicans prevented Democrats from using the filibuster to block judges then Democrats would refuse to accede to senatorial courtesies "even on routine matters."

"It's the same old threat with new spin," Stevenson said. "The threat to shut down the Senate by any other means is still a threat to shut down the Senate."

Reid and Frist appear no closer to resolving the impasses over a handful of judges that Democrats have blocked. The filibuster is extended debate that requires 60 votes to stop.

With 44 Democrats and one independent voting almost as a bloc, Republicans were unable to overcome the 60-vote margin on 10 of Bush's nominees for appellate courts. Bush resubmitted seven of those nominees for Senate consideration this year.

It is unclear, however, whether Frist has the 51 votes he needs to change the filibuster rule. Frist has vowed since last November to limit the use of the parliamentary maneuver but has yet to bring it to a vote. Some Democrats say that is evidence he does not have the votes.

The standoff has also been remarkable because of the discipline displayed by normally fractious Democrats. They have stuck together not only on nominations but also in forming a unified front against Bush on Social Security.

Reid has managed to sustain unity by letting moderate Democrats off the hook on other difficult pieces of legislation, such as an overhaul of bankruptcy laws and class action lawsuits—two issues that liberals and other Democratic allies opposed.

The unity is also a function of the changing face of the Democratic Party. Last year's election weeded out moderate and conservative Southern Democrats and replaced them with Republicans.

The agenda released Monday is a compilation of legislative initiatives that Democrats have already introduced. Anticipating a showdown on the filibuster, Reid and Durbin have employed a rarely used Senate rule that allows senators to circumvent the majority and put any piece of business on the legislative calendar.

At the top of the list in Reid's agenda is the "Prevention First Act of 2005," a bill designed to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and abortion by proving more money to family planning agencies. The legislation is sponsored by Reid and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

Clinton made news earlier this year by advocating fewer abortions, in a move many interpreted as an attempt to move to the center as she contemplates a presidential run in 2008.

"We believe this is part of the debate that many people who are opposed to abortion would be open to discuss," Durbin said Monday. "We are trying to reopen this debate is a positive and constructive way. It is part of an effort to redefine a very contentious issue in positive terms."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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