DEMOCRATS to push patients' rights, hearings on energy problems

Monday, June 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Patients' rights will surge past President Bush's energy plan to the top of the agenda when Democrats grab control of the Senate on Wednesday.

Investigators will probe why gasoline prices have soared. Hearings will be held on rising electricity rates and on the FBI, too.

Democrats are also contemplating putting their imprint on the chamber with early efforts to boost the minimum wage, create prescription drug coverage for Medicare recipients and revamp election procedures.

But their power will be held in check by their paper-thin majority and the Republicans' ability to use filibusters to hinder legislation. So the Democrats will be unable to shove their priorities through the Senate at will when they become the majority Wednesday morning.

And as far as enacting law, Democrats will still have to contend with a Republican-dominated House _ not to mention a GOP White House under President Bush.

``There will be a different agenda and a different focus,'' Marshall Wittmann, senior fellow for the conservative Hudson Institute, said Monday. ``But there won't be a radical lurch to the left because Democrats are in charge.''

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who will become majority leader, has said the Senate will first complete its work on a bipartisan education bill backed by Bush. After that, it will turn to a bill expanding patients' rights cosponsored by Democrats and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Democrats will also craft their own energy legislation, focusing more than Bush did on enhancing conservation, energy efficiency and short-term help for consumers.

``There will still be some production incentives, but it won't be so dominant,'' said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who will chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue said that while the Democrats' ascendancy won't change any votes in the Senate, Daschle's ability to control the agenda will be the most telling change.

``The real challenges are going to be on health care and energy'' as far as business is concerned, Donohue said.

Other Democratic plans include:

_ The new Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman, Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., envisions hearings this month on whether the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has adequately overseen electricity prices.

_ Incoming Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he wants hearings on recent FBI mishaps including spying allegations against former agent Robert Hanssen and the recently discovered evidence in the Timothy McVeigh bombing case.

_ An investigations subcommittee headed by Carl Levin, D-Mich. will examine rising gasoline prices.

_ Max Baucus, D-Mont., who will head the Finance Committee, is less interested than many Republicans in a future tax bill, but will consider including ``modest'' tax breaks for small business in minimum wage legislation, said Baucus spokesman Michael Siegel.

The Democratic takeover will become official Wednesday, when James Jeffords, R-Vt., formally leaves the GOP and becomes an independent who will vote with Democrats to organize the Senate.

Jeffords timed his move to become official at the close of business Tuesday or when Congress sent the recently approved tax bill to Bush for his signature, whichever occurred later. GOP aides said the legislation reached the White House on Monday, and Bush planned to sign it at a ceremony on Thursday.

Jeffords' switch will give Democrats a 50-49 edge, plus Jeffords, and will be the first time Senate control has ever shifted during a session of Congress in a meaningful way. The only exception occurred this past January, when Democrats held the majority for 17 days when Al Gore was vice president and the Senate was still divided 50-50. Little work was done.

Despite the historic nature of the transition, the Democrats' moment will arrive with little fanfare in the chamber.

Under current plans, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the longest-serving Senate Democrat, will gavel the body into session. He will recognize Daschle to speak as majority leader, and the Democrats' reign will begin.

At the moment Daschle is recognized as majority leader, the top Democratic members on each committee will become chairmen.

But until the Senate approves a resolution revamping panels' rosters to reflect the Democratic majority, memberships on committees will revert to the end of the last Congress, when the GOP had control. Because of vacancies caused by retirements and election defeats, that will give Republicans majorities on eight major committees and Democrats one, with seven tied.

Some Republicans have said that before they agree to not filibuster the measure rearranging committee memberships, they want Democrats to consent to procedures to ensure fair treatment of Bush nominees. Democrats have noted that past Senate majorities have not created such processes.