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The Nation

Democrats' To-do List Is Modest At Outset

House leaders plan quick attention to popular measures but little action on Iraq.

Pelosi's 100-hour Agenda

January 02, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When Democrats take power on Capitol Hill this week, House leaders will kick off their legislative campaign with a lightning-fast 100-hour agenda.

But there won't be a revolution.

In marked contrast to the Republicans who swept into the majority in 1994, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her legislative allies are not planning to amend the Constitution or eradicate federal agencies.

Instead, their initial legislative foray will focus on modest, politically popular issues, including initiatives to expand stem cell research, lower prescription drug prices and tighten congressional ethics rules.

Pelosi's program is expected to receive a warm reception on Capitol Hill, even from some Republicans. Less clear is whether Democrats can follow up with solutions to the deeper problems that are troubling a restive public.

Polls show that most Americans are looking to Congress, rather than the president, for leadership, particularly on resolving the war in Iraq.

Yet Pelosi and the Democrats plan no dramatic steps to influence the course of the war. Nor has the new majority detailed strategies to tackle other challenges that have confounded lawmakers for years, including rising healthcare costs and the financially imperiled Social Security system.

For now, the relatively safe 100-hour agenda may simply allow the Democrats to show they can accomplish something after a dozen years in the political wilderness.

"One of the things the public is definitely looking for is results," said veteran strategist Peter Fenn, who helped several Democratic candidates unseat Republicans in part by campaigning against the "do-nothing" record of the previous GOP-led Congress.

"You just have to look at Arnold Schwarzenegger to get an idea of how important that is," Fenn said, noting how California's recently reelected Republican governor salvaged his political fortunes by reaching across the aisle to rack up a series of substantive policy accomplishments.

But finding a majority on Capitol Hill to agree on even small measures can be challenging.

Democrats will hold just a one-vote advantage in the Senate, where rules allow the minority party to stall, slow and amend legislation.

At the same time, ideological divisions between the parties are wider than they were a generation ago, when moderates in both caucuses wielded greater influence.

It also remains unclear how the president and the new Congress will work together. Though Bush and Democratic congressional leaders have pronounced themselves committed to compromise, they are coming off six years of fiercely partisan government.

And taking on a president, even a weakened one, is never easy for Congress. When Republicans challenged President Clinton over the budget after taking power in 1995, they were blamed after the federal government was forced to shut down during the faceoff.

"It's not going to be a cakewalk," said incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "Just because you say you want to be bipartisan doesn't mean they're going to fall all over themselves to work with you."

But the rapid-fire agenda that Pelosi has crafted to kick off Democratic rule carefully hits issues with broad popular appeal that may be hard for many Republicans to oppose.

Pelosi's proposed House ethics package -- which would ban many gifts from lobbyists and identify members who insert earmarks into bills for spending on their pet projects -- comes after scandals that voters blamed on Republicans. The GOP never passed comprehensive ethics legislation, to the chagrin of many of the party's members.

House Democrats are also talking about reinstating rules that would require any new tax cuts or spending increases to be offset by other cuts, a measure designed to reduce future budget deficits. That is another issue of concern to Americans, polls show.

At the close of the last legislative session, some Republican lawmakers decried the spending excesses of their party, which has presided over record budget deficits despite its platform of fiscal restraint.

Democrats plan to liberalize federal funding for stem cell research, a popular initiative that was approved by bipartisan majorities in both chambers of Congress before the president vetoed it in July.

And they are pledging to repeal a law passed in 2003 that prohibited the federal government from using its purchasing power to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare recipients, a top concern of senior citizens.

That proposal, too, earlier won bipartisan support when the Senate voted in March to support the idea in concept.

Some of the 100-hour issues are so popular that opposition appears to have melted away.

Representatives of the business community for a decade had been engaged in a struggle with organized labor to blunt any raise in the minimum wage. Yet now they say they see little chance of stopping the Democratic push to increase it to $7.25 an hour, from $5.15.

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