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Hill change

Congree eyes midterm elections in filling its 2006 plate with an agenda designed to please the voters' palates

Hill change

Some lawmakers rang in the New Year with consternation over the likely confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court-and much of the consternation came from pro-abortion politicians who worry that one more conservative tilt to the high court could reverse the decision, giving a Republican-dominated Congress power to outlaw the practice. But with Congress scheduled to reconvene Jan. 18, new scuffles await with equally uncertain outcomes. The House must elect new leadership following the announcement this month that embattled former Majority Leader Tom DeLay will not seek the post again.

Overshadowing all are mid-term elections, which determine much of the 2006 agenda and could set the course of the president's final two years in office.

Should the situation in Iraq continue in a stalemate for U.S. troops, domestic concerns may well top the congressional agenda in 2006-and dictate whether Republicans lose seats in November.

TERRORISM/IRAQ: Iraq's elections last month, coupled with Mr. Bush's year-ending series of optimistic speeches, have bolstered support for U.S. troop deployment and decreased GOP doom and gloom. House and Senate Republicans believe such political capital will afford opportunities to accentuate differences between the parties on matters of national security.

Democrats seem willing to accentuate those differences as well-seeking to filibuster a Patriot Act extension through searing condemnations of Mr. Bush for authorizing wiretaps of U.S. citizens with known links to al-Qaeda. Concerns over civil-liberties abuse were not entirely partisan, however, as the Republican-controlled House approved only a one-month extension of the Patriot Act through Feb. 3.

Mr. Bush grudgingly signed the measure. The White House had initially vowed not to accept any such temporary extension. Now, contention over expanded domestic anti-terrorism powers will dominate congressional arguments through the first month of 2006 and beyond.

HEALTH CARE: Politically astute Democrats have begun to shift the health-care debate from public vs. private to moral vs. evil. For them, pragmatic concerns over which vision will provide the best possible health care for the greatest number of people have given way to human-rights rhetoric that deems universal coverage an obligation for any moral society.

More than a general appeal to so-called "values voters," such rhetoric specifically targets women voters. A recent national survey, conducted by Lake Research Partners, found that 84 percent of women believe the government should guarantee quality, affordable health care for all-a statistic of which Hillary Clinton is well aware. Congressional Democrats will work to further bring into the mainstream the notion of national health care in 2006, perhaps affording Mrs. Clinton the opportunity to appear moderate while pushing the radical idea in a 2008 presidential run.

IMMIGRATION: Popular concern for improved immigration policies is firmly planted in the back seat, but few issues hold more power either to galvanize or alienate the Republican conservative base. Porous borders, north and south, leave open the possibility of another grand domestic terrorist attack.

Just prior to its holiday break, the House passed legislation calling for a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. If approved by the Senate, the bill also would clamp down on employers of undocumented workers and promote cooperation between local and federal immigration-enforcement officials. Democrats protest that a fence will not decrease the number of illegal entries but only increase border-crossing deaths as immigrants navigate more treacherous terrain.

Some conservatives wonder whether Congress should shift its immigration focus north-the U.S.-Canada border being the only one at which guards have captured al-Qaeda operatives.

OTHERS: A prohibition against military academy chaplains praying in Jesus' name may land in Congress this year. More than 70 members of the House signed an October letter to President Bush requesting his intervention. White House silence on the matter thus far could spark murmurs on Capitol Hill.

Congress must also address the prospect of drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge-an issue with fickle levels of public support contingent on ever-fluctuating gas prices.

Mark Bergin

Mark Bergin