GOP Lays Out Priorities In Letter To Reid

Republican senators sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid, saying they will block all legislation until all the Bush-era tax cuts are extended, and until the Senate passes legislation to fund the government. Reid said the GOP has put in writing the "obstruct and delay" policy it has pursued all year. Meanwhile, tax talks continued behind closed doors, and Reid sought to move forward on legislation such as the DREAM Act, which would give the children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're going to hear more now on that ultimatum that Senate Republicans delivered today to Harry Reid, the leader of the Senate Democrats. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: After sending the GOP's do-this-or-else letter to Majority Leader Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Republicans were through pleading with Democrats to put aside their legislative wish list.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): We need to show the American people that we care more about them and their ability to pay their bills than we do about the special interest groups' legislative Christmas lists. Republicans are united in our opposition to proceeding to any of these things until Democrats make the priorities of the American people their own.

WELNA: Majority Leader Reid essentially thumbed his nose at the Republicans. He announced he would bring up bills giving the children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, allowing firefighters to bargain collectively and providing health benefits to 9/11 rescuers.

He said the true effect of the GOP letter was to bar the Senate from acting on issues that do have bipartisan support.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): With this letter, they have simply put in writing the political strategy that the Republicans have pursued this entire Congress, namely obstruct, delay, obstruct, delay action on critical matters and then blame the Democrats for not addressing the needs of the American people - very cynical but very obvious, very transparent.

WELNA: Meanwhile, in a nearby Senate office building, a newly formed bipartisan group gathered to tackle one of the Republicans' demands. The two Republicans, two Democrats and two Obama administration officials at the table were there in search of an agreement on what to do about the expiring Bush-era tax cuts.

Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus later described the clearly inconclusive meeting he took part in.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): It was good, very instructive, got all the major issues on the table. We went around the room talking about it.

WELNA: One issue Democrats want to deal with is the stalled annual Defense Authorization Bill. It includes a provision to repeal the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy barring gays from serving openly in the military.

Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, says it's still on the lame-duck agenda.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): I know that the majority leader, Harry Reid, wants to bring it up. And I hope we can do it soon.

WELNA: Despite that letter?

Sen. DURBIN: Well, of course, but it's a sequencing. I'm hoping we can get to the tax issues and get them resolved. Maybe I'm wishful thinking here. But if we can, then the other agenda can unfold.

WELNA: But Republicans show little interest in taking up the defense bill. South Carolina's Lindsey Graham says if there is time for anything else, it may be the new START nuclear arms treaty with Russia that's a top priority for President Obama.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): The START treaty has some geopolitical implications. That would be nice to take off the table if possible. But you can't do it all. So you've got to pick because if you bring the Defense Authorization Bill up, you're going to run into a bunch of fights, not just on Don't Ask, Don't Tell but other issues, too.

WELNA: Still, letter or no letter, Democrats are moving ahead with their agenda. Hearings on repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell get under way tomorrow.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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