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GOP assails freeze-out by Democrats

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The members of the 110th Congress won't be sworn in until today, but the new era of bipartisanship pledged by Republicans and Democrats in recent weeks is grinding to a close.

House Republicans are protesting what they say are plans by the new Democratic majority to shut them out of the legislative process as they pass their "First 100 Hours" package - a violation, they say, of the Democrats' campaign pledge to restore cooperation and civility to Washington.

"We are disappointed that at this point in the game, half of the Congress has been cut out of the process," said Rep. Adam H. Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Caucus.

For 12 years, House Democrats complained of being sidelined by the Republican majority. But now, intent on passing their "Six for '06" agenda, they have opted against holding the committee hearings or allowing the amendments that give the minority party a voice in the process.

Democrats say most of the items in the broadly supported package - raising the minimum wage, enacting the remaining recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission and cutting interest rates on student loans among them - have been thoroughly vetted by Congress in recent years.

"We view the First 100 Hours essentially as a mandate from the American people," said incoming House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland. "We have told the American public, we told Republicans, we told everybody: 'If you elect us, this is what we are going to do immediately.'"

Hoyer said Democrats would establish more-inclusive rules once the package is passed. He suggested that critics reserve judgment until the end of the legislative year.

"It will be at that stage that we can look back," he said. "Did the Democrats, in fact, offer more opportunity for the minority to have their views aired, amendments offered, participation in deliberations, full committee consideration, inclusion in conferences, notice given when conferences are concluded?"

House Republicans were not mollified.

"Does soon-to-be-Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi really want the first agenda item when that gavel comes down on her speakership to be a broken promise?" asked Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas. "There's an old adage: Your actions speak so loudly I can hardly hear your words."

Hensarling and other Republicans presented yesterday a "Minority Bill of Rights" based on a proposal by Pelosi at the start of the last Congress, when it was the Democrats who were demanding a voice in a Republican Congress.

Alice Rivlin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, called the decision to shut Republicans out of the initial rush of legislation "a tactical mistake."

"They can't do any big legislation without doing it jointly," Rivlin said.

But Dartmouth College political scientist Linda L. Fowler said the parties might not be able to work together. Allowing more Republican input, she said, could leave the Democrats vulnerable to amendments that could divide their members.

"The problem for the Democrats is, if they allow amendments, they're inviting this kind of symbolic activity that will come back to bite them," she said. "They have no guarantee that if they do behave in a more collegial way that it will be reciprocated."

Historically, each party has taken advantage of House rules that allow the majority to limit minority participation in legislation. But Republicans, who employed a variety of means to shut Democrats out of the process during their years in power, are admitting no irony in their position.

"The important point here is that the American people were promised a new way of doing business in the United States Congress," Putnam said. "There was clearly a high level of frustration in the heartland about the way that people viewed the workings, the procedures in this building. And they were promised a fresh approach, a fresh start."

Hoyer released the schedule for the Democrats' First 100 Hours package. Votes are scheduled next week on some of the recommendations of the Sept 11 commission, raising the minimum wage, authorizing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and requiring the government to negotiate lower prescription prices for seniors. Democrats also want to act the following week on proposals to cut interest rates on student loans and end subsidies for big oil companies.

Rivlin says the election showed that voters want a different tone in Washington.

"It wasn't so much that the Democrats won, it was a rejection of the politics of the last two years," she said. "The Democrats have now an opportunity, if they don't blow it, to say: 'This is a new kind of Congress. We are going to work together to solve problems, not just be playing games and blaming each other.'"

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