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Social Security Tops GOP Agenda

Senate Republicans say the revamping of Social Security is their top legislative goal of 2005, with further tax cuts, energy independence and lawsuit limits listed as other issues that will get their attention in the coming months.

Democrats also revealed on Monday their top 10 priorities for the new Congress, a list that emphasizes health, education and jobs. It omits many of the issues, including Social Security, that President Bush and his GOP allies want this Congress to enact.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said at a news conference that S.1, the designation of the first Senate bill to be introduced in the new session, "has been reserved for what is probably the most important domestic legislation we will address in this Congress, and that is modernizing and strengthening the Social Security program."

The bill, which the president has yet to send to Congress, is expected to include provisions for individuals to divert part of their payroll taxes that now go to Social Security into personal investment accounts.

Democrats said they would look at what Republicans have to offer but disputed the need for urgency to change a system that will be financially solvent for decades to come. "This is no crisis, so why should we be lurching forward?" asked Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Reid also blasted a proposal by the Republican chairman of the House tax-writing committee to tie Social Security benefits to factors like race and sex. Reid said "foolish isn't a strong enough description" for Rep. Bill Thomas' plan.

Reid also shot down Thomas' idea of a value-added tax, calling the proposal "dead on arrival."

Amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage was not on Senate Republicans' top 10 list, but Frist said he was hopeful the measure, defeated in the last Congress, will pass in this one. He did not give a timetable for considering it.

Backers of the gay marriage ban vowed Monday to press for passage in the new Congress, despite mixed signals from the White House on the issue's importance at the start of President Bush's second term.

The GOP list included one measure to limit abortion, a bill, defeated in past years, that would bar transporting a minor across state lines to obtain an abortion so as to avoid parental consent laws in the state where the minor lives.

Frist said the first major bill that could come up for a vote this year is legislation limiting class action lawsuits, a bill that came close to passing last year.

Other items include making permanent the tax cuts of recent years that dealt with the marriage penalty, the estate tax and capital gains taxes. Health savings accounts are among health matters that will draw attention.

Also on the list are bills to increase military survivor benefits, expand protections against biological and chemical attacks, extend educational opportunities, simplify the tax code and make the nation more energy independent.

"It's going to be a very exciting Congress," Frist said. "It's going to require some bold action."

Democrats, given S.11 through S.20 on the legislative calendar, proposed increasing military troop strength by 40,000 over the next two years, improving health care for veterans, increasing the minimum wage, creating tuition incentives for college math and science students, legalizing prescription drug reimports and creating federal standards for elections.

Democrats acknowledged that, after losing three seats in the last election, they are battling against the odds. Speaking of the new Senate lineup, Richard Durbin of Illinois, the new Democratic whip, said: "We know how to count. It's 55-45."

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