By Scott Conroy of the CBS News Political Unit
While the battle over the future of the filibuster continues to rage in Washington, Congressional Democrats and Republicans have found a domestic issue on which they can agree: free money for babies.
Some of the most staunchly partisan members on both sides of the aisle came together on Thursday to introduce the ASPIRE Act of 2005, a bill that would allow a onetime $500 "kids account" contribution for every newborn child. The bill would affect all American children born after Dec. 31, 2006, but is particularly focused on families that fall below the national median income, who will be eligible for an additional $500 contribution and federal matching funds of up to $1,000 ($500 in the Senate version) for private contributions each year until the child is 18.
"I like to regard it as Head Start for your piggy bank," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Schumer was joined by three Democratic and two Republican colleagues, who announced the bill at a press conference inside the Capitol. The alliance created by these members, who hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum, was rare indeed and reflected a desire to highlight this issue as one that can attain a broad bipartisan consensus.
"Good ideas can bring people who don't necessarily agree on a lot of things together," Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., one of the bill's sponsors, said.
The bipartisan sponsors hope that the bill will provide a steppingstone for lower- to middle-income families to save for their children's futures. The House version of the bill would cost an estimated $68 billion over 10 years, according to Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., one of the sponsors. Kennedy noted that the United States has the world's highest disparity in the amount of wealth that its citizens acquire to the amount they save.
"That is not good for our country," he said.
At a time when partisan rancor over the legislative agenda and judicial nominees has engulfed Congress, the ASPIRE Act comes as a notable, if short-lived relief.
"As opposed to fission, I think we're working on fusion here, if you want to use nuclear terms," said Jon Corzine, D-N.J.
But Corzine's language was a stark reminder of the bitter divide over the so-called nuclear option – a parliamentary tactic that Senate Republicans have threatened to employ to prevent Democrats from using filibusters to block controversial judicial nominations. An article published in The Hill on Thursday indicated that Santorum, a leading advocate of the nuclear option, was privately pushing for a delay in its implementation, reflecting polling that suggests most Americans do not support it. But after his announcement of the ASPIRE Act, Santorum denied he favored a freeze on the nuclear option.
"He asked that question repeatedly and I said, 'No, that's not true,' and I guess he decided he was going to write a story anyway," Santorum said. CBS News was told that several inside the Republican leadership were advocating a postponement of the vote on judges until after the summer recess and that factions were arguing over timing and strategy. Santorum faces a tough re-election race in 2006 in the blue state of Pennsylvania and some Republican strategists believe that the party has steered away from issues that matter to most voters, like gas prices and job creation, in favor of issues that primarily concern its conservative base.
The confusion stemming from The Hill's story and Santorum's denial adds another wrinkle to this divisive issue. On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved two controversial judicial appointees who were blocked by Senate Democrats during President Bush's first term: Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown. Democrats have again threatened to filibuster the nominations, a tactic that could soon lead to a Republican attempt to utilize the nuclear option.
"Over the next week or two we're going to hopefully come to a resolution on this one way or another," Santorum said.
CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch contributed to this story.