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House Democrats take on global warming, oil issues

January 19, 2007|Nicole Gaouette and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As the House's new Democratic majority celebrated the completion of their populist 100-hour agenda Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) unveiled the party's next legislative target: an ambitious plan to wean the U.S. from foreign oil and slow global warming.

Pelosi announced that she intended to create a select panel to help craft the party's environmental agenda and had asked committee chairs with jurisdiction over the issue to pass legislation "to truly declare our energy independence" by July 4.

The announcement came as Democrats completed the agenda of their first 100 legislative hours with passage of a bill that would repeal oil industry tax breaks and put the estimated $14 billion in revenue over 10 years toward research on energy conservation and alternative fuels.

The legislation was the last of six bills that the Democrats plowed through the House in two weeks, including measures to increase the minimum wage, expand stem cell research, implement Sept. 11 commission recommendations, authorize Medicare negotiations for lower drug prices and cut interest rates on student loans.

Now, the hard part begins.

Even as Democratic leaders and freshmen clustered around Pelosi at a news conference to tout their accomplishments, rumbles from the slower-moving Senate signaled that bills would face resistance there.

Pelosi's plan to create the energy panel was also raising hackles among House Democrats who chair committees with jurisdiction on the matter, especially Rep. John D. Dingell, a veteran lawmaker from Michigan who looks out for the interests of the Detroit automakers.

And, although House Democrats backed the 100-hour agenda almost unanimously, cracks in the caucus may appear as Democrats turn to energy, healthcare and immigration, among other issues.

On Thursday, though, Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) stressed the positive and extolled the success of their agenda, which Hoyer's office calculated passed in 42 hours, 13 minutes and 28 seconds of legislative time.

"In the November election, the American people signaled their wish for change, a wish for our country to go in a new direction," Pelosi said. "Democrats promised that we would, and these past two weeks we have delivered on the promise."

The bill to repeal oil industry tax breaks was approved 264 to 163, but that and the other 100-hour measures are still far from becoming law.

President Bush has threatened to use his veto power against the stem cell bill, which would expand funding for research using embryonic stem cells, and the Medicare legislation. And though Democrats also control the Senate, by a 51-49 majority, Republicans can use the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome, to kill House-passed bills.

The compromises that may be required to get the House-passed bills through the Senate could strain ties between Democrats in the two chambers.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has attached a package of small-business tax breaks to the bill increasing the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, a move that will require House-Senate negotiations. The House bill did not include any tax breaks, and the issue is already causing schisms between Democrats in the two chambers.

Baucus and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) believe the bill would be filibustered without the tax breaks, said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) is bridling at that, said committee spokesman Matthew Beck. Rangel thinks they should at least try to pass a wage increase without the tax breaks, and is brandishing his new power as a chairman, arguing that the Constitution gives the House, not the Senate, the power to originate a tax bill.

Senate Republicans also have issues with the House bills. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who helped write some of the tax breaks aimed at encouraging domestic oil and gas production, took aim Thursday at the bill to repeal them.

"It seems very strange to me that if you want to become less dependent on foreign oil, the first thing you would do in your first 100 hours is increase the taxes by 3 percentage points on all domestic production of oil and gas," Grassley said, accusing House Democrats of political posturing.

Although Pelosi may have little sway over Senate Republicans, she visited Senate Democrats Thursday afternoon in a bid to inspire cooperation between the two chambers and avoid the sort of internal bickering that contributed to GOP losses in the midterm election.

Pelosi addressed about 35 Senate Democrats at their weekly policy lunch. Her appearance, a rare move by a House speaker, was as symbolic as substantive -- an attempt to continue her teamwork with Reid, which helped Democrats take control of Congress.

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