Democrats plan for a safe debut

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 big 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 health care 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.

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

Democrats will hold 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.


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

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

"It's not going to be a cakewalk," said incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. "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 - another issue that opinion polls show Americans are concerned about.


At the close of the last legislative session, some Republican lawmakers decried the spending excesses of their own 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.

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 from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour.

It is uncertain whether Republican insistence on some tax relief for small businesses could hang up the measure. But few expect major battles.


"There's not much desire to start a fight on it. It's not winnable," said one business lobbyist. "The White House doesn't appear to have a lot of fight in them ... [and] I don't think weakened Republican minorities are going to want to fight."

Even some oil executives have said they don't need all of the tax breaks that the federal government has granted the industry in recent years. House Democrats have promised to repeal a number of them.

Once Democrats move beyond the popular items in their first 100 hours, however, their challenges will mount.

Americans overwhelmingly want Congress and the White House to address the war in Iraq first. In a recent Gallup poll, 69 percent said the war should be the top priority, compared with 16 percent who pointed to the economy, which was second.

By contrast, the items on the 100-hour agenda ranked the war far down on the list.

House and Senate Democrats have planned a series of oversight hearings in January to focus attention on the war. And several senior Democrats have pledged to fight any proposal to send more troops to Iraq.


But the new majority has indicated it will shy away from asserting its real power to shape the war: using its budgetary authority to restrict spending.

"We will have oversight," Pelosi said recently. "We will not cut off funding."

Incoming House Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, recently had lunch with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., who is taking the lead for the administration on economic issues.

In a recent interview, Rangel said both sides had reason to compromise. "We have two years to prove that the voters were right, and the president has two years to prove that he's not a lame duck," he said.

Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.