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From the CQ Newsroom: Democratic Agenda Faces Uphill Climb

By Martin Kady II, CQ Staff

January 3, 2007 -- Although new presidents often enjoy a 100-day honeymoon with Congress, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would gladly settle for 100 hours to get the new Congress off to a strong start.

But the California Democrat, who will usher in new a Democratic majority, is unlikely to get even that.

House Republicans are already assailing her agenda and operating style, despite the fact that Pelosi won't be formally elected Speaker until after the House convenes Thursday.

Outgoing Homeland Security Chairman Peter T. King, R-N.Y., says Pelosi is backpedaling on promises to implement every remaining recommendation of the independent Sept. 11 commission.

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., says Pelosi is breaking a promise of open rules and fair treatment of the minority. Her aides say she never promised open rules for the first-100-hours agenda.

Incoming Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, is warning that Republicans will fight her move to raise the minimum wage if it's not packaged with tax breaks for small businesses.

"The honeymoon has probably gone by the wayside," Price said.

If the Republican complaints were not enough, Pelosi faces another, more significant obstacle to her ambitious agenda: the Senate. Democrats will begin the 110th Congress with a 51–49 operating edge in the Senate, far short of the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters and pass legislation.

Furthermore, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota remains hospitalized following brain surgery for a hemorrhage that occurred Dec. 13. If he should die or resign during the new Congress, control of the Senate would almost certainly shift back to the Republicans.

Then there is President Bush. He may be a lame duck, but he is still commander in chief. No matter how much Democrats rail against his conduct of the Iraq war or how many oversight hearings they conduct, he will continue to dictate strategy there.

In addition, Bush wields the most powerful of all legislative weapons: the veto. During the first six years of his presidency, when Republicans controlled one or both chambers of Congress, Bush vetoed only one bill, a measure relaxing limits he had imposed on federally funded embryonic stem cell research. He is unlikely to be so restrained with Democrats in charge.

Democrats have nowhere near the two-thirds majority of both chambers needed to override a presidential veto, so they will have to decide fairly quickly whether they want to enact laws or make political points. That calculation may shift as the 2008 election draws closer.

The First Steps
Democrats will start the 110th Congress with relatively easy stuff—pressing lobbying and ethics changes this week, and going on to other priorities, such as passing some of the Sept. 11 commission recommendations and raising the minimum wage over two years by $2.10 an hour next week.

After that, they will move on to a more substantive agenda that includes crafting a budget resolution and attempting to repeal certain tax cuts. But first, they will have to pass a continuing appropriations resolution to fund the government through the end of fiscal 2007. The resolution, usually a temporary legislative solution to appropriations gridlock, is more complex this January because Democrats will be trying to figure out how to disburse $7 billion saved from member earmarks.

Senate Comity
In the Senate, incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada can expect a generally strong working relationship with incoming Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has signaled that he is ready to work more closely with Democrats than did outgoing GOP leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. Both Reid and McConnell are four-term Senate veterans steeped in the institution's often arcane traditions. They prefer collaboration to confrontation, all other things being equal.

The two leaders have scheduled an unusual closed-door session in the Old Senate Chamber on Jan. 4 to give members a chance to assemble as a group in private.

After newly elected senators are sworn in on Thursday, Democrats will hold a one-day policy retreat Jan. 5.

On Jan. 8, Reid plans to bring to the floor a lobbying and ethics overhaul measure the Senate passed last year, but it will be heavily amended on the floor, with debate led by incoming Rules Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

House Democrats will adopt their ethics and lobbying proposals as part of the chamber's rules package for the 110th Congress.

The debate over the proposals, which follows a year of corruption scandals that centered on disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, will give Democrats in both chambers a chance to tout their clean government agenda. Democrats have proposed tighter limits on lobbyist-funded travel, enhanced lobbying disclosure requirements, an end to the practice of secret holds, and disclosure of the sponsors of earmarks. They are divided over whether to create an outside ethics commission, but that proposal will likely be debated as an amendment to the Senate bill.

The Senate's lobbying and ethics bill is likely to be one of the few truly bipartisan legislative packages to advance in the early weeks of the new Congress.

By mid-January, the Senate will be wrestling with the minimum wage bill. Republicans have already said they will not permit it to pass without some kind of small-business tax and regulatory breaks. Those will require intensive negotiations, and Finance Committee members are already considering possible "sweeteners."

In late January, Senate Democrats plan to debate a bill that would rewrite the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill to allow the government to negotiate bulk prices, an idea that Republicans and Bush have opposed consistently.

Budget Battle Looms
In early February, Bush will unveil his fiscal 2008 budget, and the momentum of the new Congress will undoubtedly slow with the complicated process of passing a new budget resolution. Democrats want to force the White House to include Iraq war costs in the annual budget, and appropriators are intent on attaching more conditions to war spending in the coming fiscal year.

Republicans failed to get a final budget resolution adopted last year, and Democrats aim to prove that they can do better.

"We need a budget process, and we know what works," said incoming House Budget Chairman John M. Spratt Jr., D-S.C. "We need a five- to 10-year budget framework. We need to reimpose some kind of cap on discretionary spending. And we need to reinstate the [pay-as-you-go] rule applicable to entitlement increases, as well as the tax cuts."

It won't be easy. The new Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate include a mix of liberals and fiscal conservatives who may not agree on budgetary priorities.

While budget resolutions are immune to filibusters in the Senate, mustering even a simple majority for one will be an especially formidable challenge.

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