Bush: Disaster Aid to Be Congress Priority

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President Bush, pledging to work with new members of the House and Senate, said Monday the first order of business for Congress will be to approve disaster aid for the millions of people in South Asia.

Bush, at a White House reception, said that Washington is "sometimes too partisan and too political. My hope is that we can show the nation that we can come together to achieve big things for the good of the country."

The president has pledged $350 million in disaster aid and has held out the prospect for more assistance. "We will help in a way where the aid makes a difference," Bush said.

Battle lines already are being drawn on Bush's second-term goals to adjust tax laws, partially privatize Social Security and limit medical liability lawsuits. "I want to confront problems, and I will," Bush said. "I'll call upon Congress to take on big issues."

Although fellow Republicans gained four seats in the Senate and three in the House in November to boost their majorities, there is no consensus on Capitol Hill waiting to embrace Bush's domestic proposals.

Pitching his domestic agenda is just one item on Bush's jam-packed January calendar. He must fill vacancies in his Cabinet, prepare his inaugural and State of the Union addresses, finish a 2006 budget proposal and keep close watch on the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq.

On Wednesday, Bush travels to Collinsville in Madison County, Ill., known nationally for large monetary awards to plaintiffs in civil lawsuits. Other trips in the works are intended to build momentum for his plan to let younger workers divert some of their payroll taxes into personal investment accounts.

Democrats, who see the accounts as a boon for Wall Street, have said the eventual shortfall in Social Security benefits is "a manageable problem" that does not require extensive overhauls. Bush says the private accounts are the best way to overhaul the government retirement system, which is projected to start paying out more in benefits than it collects in about 13 years.

Last week, AARP, whose 35 million members are age 50 and above, announced a major advertising campaign to oppose the idea. The group contends the accounts amount to gambling with retirement savings.

Bush has ruled out raising taxes or cutting benefits for those who already receive or soon will get Social Security checks, but he has not said how he plans to pay for his plan. Since payroll taxes fund current retirees' benefits, the government would have to spend $1 trillion to $2 trillion to replace those funds.

It's unlikely the cost of overhauling Social Security will find its way into the upcoming budget for 2006 that the White House will submit to Congress next month.

The president's new budget also is not likely to include the billions needed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lawmakers approved $87.5 billion for those operations in the fall of 2003 and $25 billion more last spring. Bush is expected to request an additional $75 billion to $100 billion early this year — a steep amount given the ballooning budget deficit.

On tax law, the president is working to appoint a bipartisan advisory panel that would make recommendations to him. Bush had said he would set up the panel by the end of 2004, but aides now say he'll do it in "coming days."

Bush also must complete filling vacancies in his 15-member Cabinet.

The Senate begins holding confirmation hearings on nine nominees this week as Bush searches for a homeland security secretary. Last month, he chose former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik to replace Tom Ridge. But White House officials who had checked Kerik's background were left red-faced when he withdrew his nomination because of an immigration problem with a housekeeper-nanny.

Bush also needs to name someone to lead the Environmental Protection Agency because he chose EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt to run the Health and Human Services Department. Also vacant is the director of national intelligence, a new post, and ambassador to the United Nations, where John Danforth stepped down.

Bush is getting ready to deliver two major speeches — his Jan. 20 inaugural address and his annual State of the Union speech to Congress late this month or in early February.