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Bush, Congress Face Heavy Schedule

A packed calendar awaits President Bush (search) after his vacation in Texas: filling a gaping hole in his Cabinet, preparing his inaugural and State of the Union speeches, finalizing a new budget, keeping close watch on the upcoming elections in Iraq and promoting his second-term agenda.

Fresh from seven days at his ranch, Bush planned a Monday meeting with newly elected members of Congress. Already, battle lines are being drawn on Capitol Hill on the president's proposals to simplify tax laws, partially privatize Social Security and rein in medical liability lawsuits.

On Wednesday, Bush is in Collinsville in Illinois' Madison County, known nationally for large monetary awards to plaintiffs in civil lawsuits. Other trips in the work are intended to build momentum for Bush's 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.

"Social Security (search) is a problem that needs to be fixed," deputy White House press secretary Trent Duffy said Sunday. "Some people think we can wait. That's a dangerous position to take."

Last week, AARP (search) announced a major advertising campaign to oppose the idea. The group, which represents 35 million older people, 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. He has not said how he plans to pay for his plan.

Because payroll taxes fund current retirees' benefits, the government would have to spend $1 trillion to $2 trillion as a substitute.

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

Bush's new budget also is not expected 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 deficit.

On tax law, Bush is working to name members of a bipartisan advisory panel that would make recommendations to him. Bush had said he would set up the panel by the end of 2004. Worried that the White House was delaying the appointments and might put off sending a tax proposal to Congress until 2006, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and five other Democrats have written Bush urging immediate action.

Bush also must complete his 15-member Cabinet.

Congress this week is to begin confirmation hearings on nine nominees. But the president is searching for a homeland security chief. Last month, he chose former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik to replace Homeland Security Secretary 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 (search) because the president 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 U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (search), 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, which will be late this month or in early February.

His main speechwriter, Mike Gerson, recently was hospitalized for a heart-related problem, but his health is not expected to prevent him from working on the two addresses.

The president is turning his focus to domestic issues, but is keeping a close eye on Iraq where insurgents are working to disrupt the Jan. 30 elections.

Iraq's largest Sunni Muslim party has chosen not to participate, insurgents are continuing their attacks on Iraqi security forces and election workers. The president has acknowledged that "the bombers are having an effect."

Bush is keeping a close eye, too, on the Jan. 9 voting by Palestinians, who are picking a successor at the Palestinian Authority (search) to the late Yasser Arafat.

Bush has pledged to take a more active role in negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but no details have emerged on how Bush will reinsert himself into the diplomatic puzzle.