WASHINGTON—Eager to shed its do-nothing label, a shaken-up Congress will return next Thursday to a full plate, starting with the swearing-in of the nation's first female speaker of the House of Representatives.
Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California and her party have big plans as they take on a weakened, wartime Republican president and assume control of both chambers after a dozen years in the minority. Those plans include higher pay for hourly workers, cheaper prescription drugs for seniors, a hastened pullout from Iraq and a more liberal immigration policy.
"Democrats are prepared to govern and ready to lead," the speaker-designate said before leaving Washington for the holiday break. When President Bush makes his annual address before Congress on Jan. 23, Pelosi said, "He will walk into a new place, where America's families' issues will have been addressed even before the State of the Union."
How much the new majority accomplishes in the 110th Congress may be tempered by Democrats' divisions in the House and bare majority in the Senate: 50-49, with Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., recovering from brain surgery. Congress' low public standing—21 percent in the latest Gallup survey—and competing interests among the many 2008 presidential hopefuls in their ranks also could limit action. But the Democrats may benefit from Bush's desire to build a legacy for himself beyond Iraq in his remaining two years in office.
As they return to work, congressional Democrats intend to move on three fronts: a 100-hour plan, a long-term agenda and a barrage of oversight hearings on various issues but particularly on the Iraq war.
Within the first 100 hours of legislative business, a deadline expected to close just before Bush delivers his State of the Union address, House Democrats say they'll vote to:
_Raise the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour.
_Curb lobbyists' influence by banning meals and gifts to lawmakers and requiring more disclosure and oversight.
_Repeal subsidies for the oil industry.
_Cut college-loan interest rates in half.
_Reduce prescription-drug prices for seniors by requiring Medicare to negotiate rates with pharmaceutical companies.
_Pass another bill that allows expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, betting on better prospects for an override if the president vetoes it again.
_Implement unfulfilled recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission and beef up port security.
Republicans say the Democrats have kept them out of the loop on the details of their plans, making them skeptical of Democrats' promise of a new era of bipartisanship.
"The first 100 hours was a campaign theme, and now the Democrats have to put legislation behind the sound bites, and it appears they're not quite sure how they're going to do that yet," said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for incoming House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Because the Senate's rules give the minority party more power than the House does to slow down legislation, it could be weeks or months before final action on some of the House's proposed measures takes place.
Then there's the list of more complicated challenges that Democrats have highlighted but that experts doubt will be resolved before the next presidential election.
These include comprehensive global-warming and auto emissions legislation; universal health care; a permanent fix to the alternative minimum tax, which has begun to encroach on the middle class; and long-term solvency for the Social Security retirement program.
Some bipartisanship may be possible. After a congressional session laden with corruption scandals, Pelosi and Boehner are working jointly on one possibility: creating an outside panel to enforce ethics rules.
Republicans also have said they might join Democrats to pass a minimum wage hike if they can win incentives for business, such as tax benefits for restaurant owners.
They also say they share Democrats' stated goal of stopping deficit spending.
That goal will be put to the test soon. Democrats have indicated that they plan to deal with Republicans' unfinished appropriations bills from 2006 by extending federal-program spending at the lowest existing levels. They'll also get a big-ticket request soon for emergency war funds. And they'll be tempted by lawmakers' desires to set aside money for pet projects in next year's appropriations bills.
Bush recently highlighted immigration, Social Security and alternative energy as three areas in which he and Democrats might find common ground.
"It is that common ground that I'm confident we can get," the president said Dec. 20 at a news conference. "We can make positive progress without either of us compromising principle."
But there are more areas in which Bush and the Democrats won't agree. That's especially true in the area of oversight.
Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader-elect Harry Reid, D-Nev., and incoming committee heads are planning several investigations into the administration and its relationships with companies that the federal government hired or regulated.
The most attention is expected to fall on the management of the Iraq war and contracts with Halliburton and other service providers.
Hearings also may focus on energy companies and gas prices, prescription-drug companies, nutritional supplement manufacturers, telephone companies and domestic spying, and the Environmental Protection Agency's regulatory practices.
"The Democrats are going to try to find a balance between appearing tough and at the same time not appearing reckless," said Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University. "They have the memories of when the Republicans controlled Congress in the late 1990s, when they impeached the president and were besieged by investigations."
Pelosi has said that impeaching Bush over the war is off the table.
As for how Republicans will work with Democrats, Zelizer said that outside of a few areas of agreement, "they're going to do what they can to stifle them. They're going to think of 2008, to do everything to bring down what seems to be a very thin majority. There's enough of a thought that they can take back Congress that they don't have an incentive to play nice.
"If there's bipartisanship, it won't be because there's any spirit of bipartisanship. Both sides need something for 2008. And if Bush comes away in 2008 without much on his record other than this war as it is, he has a sense this is his legacy. That's the reason you might find a couple areas of bipartisan agreement—for pure crass electoral reasons."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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