WASHINGTON – Democrats savoring a return from political wilderness are ready to move quickly this week to take the levers of power in a Congress that has been run by Republicans the last 12 years.
On Thursday, Nancy Pelosi will take the gavel as the first woman speaker in the history of the House, and immediately launch a 100 legislative-hour march to quickly put the Democratic stamp on the new Congress.
Before President Bush arrives on Capitol Hill on Jan. 23 for his State of the Union address, House Democrats intend to update ethics rules, raise the minimum wage, implement 9/11 Commission recommendations, cut subsidies to the oil industry, promote stem cell research and make college educations and prescription drugs more affordable.
"Democrats are prepared to govern and ready to lead," said Pelosi, a Californian.
On the first day back, Democrats plan to change House rules on what members can accept from lobbyists. On the second day they'll vote on other rules changes requiring that new spending or tax cuts be paid for and that pet projects tucked into larger bills be publicly disclosed.
The new Democratic Senate, under Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, will take a parallel if somewhat more leisurely track.
The first week or week-and-a-half of business will be devoted to ethics and lobbying reform that stalled in the last Congress, including a proposal to ban lawmakers from accepting gifts and travel from lobbyists and one making it more difficult for former members who become lobbyists to solicit their former colleagues.
All of this is reminiscent of January 1995, when Republicans kept the House in past midnight on their first day in power after 40 years of Democratic rule. "This will be the busiest day on opening day in congressional history," new Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., boasted at the time.
Like the 100 hours of the Democratic agenda, Gingrich gave the House 100 days to vote on the far-broader Contract with America. In the end, Republicans did achieve some of the goals of that political treatise, such as cutting taxes, reforming welfare and fighting crime. Others, such as product liability bills and constitutional amendments to limit the terms of lawmakers and balance the budget ultimately failed.
Democrats may have more success because they have taken a less ambitious approach, said Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University and analyst for the liberal-oriented Brookings Institution think tank. They realize that their newfound majority is not so much a demand for liberal policy as a referendum on the Bush administration, she said. "I'm really struck by how pragmatic the new Democratic majority appears to be with such a limited agenda," Binder said.
Linda Fowler, professor of government at Dartmouth College, said that while some of the Democratic proposals could face a tough sell in the Senate, "what the Democrats have done is quite reasonably recognize that they need some centrist positions that have fairly broad appeal."
Pelosi, like her GOP colleagues a dozen years ago, is also promising a more benevolent majority, saying the new House rules will state plainly that the minority will get a chance to offer amendments, read legislation before it gets voted on and participate in House-Senate negotiations. She is working with new minority leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, on the idea of setting up an independent panel to investigate ethics issues.
In the Senate, where Democrats hold a fragile 51-49 majority, Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have agreed to open the session with a joint caucus, a gesture aimed at establishing "a new tone" and an attempt to "produce real results next year," said Reid.
It's not clear how long this bipartisan spirit will last. Boehner has already complained that Democrats, in hustling through their 100-hour agenda, are backtracking on their promise of a more open Congress.
And while Bush has given qualified support to the Democratic push for an increase in the minimum wage and applauded their efforts to curtail pet projects or earmarks, a vote to boost federal support of stem cell research could provoke an early showdown with the White House. Similar legislation passed by the GOP-led Congress led to the only veto of the Bush presidency.
Democrats are also certain to hit hard on a new Iraq policy, expected to be announced by Bush in January, that may increase U.S. forces in Iraq.
The House and Senate Armed Services committees, under Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., respectively, are gearing up for hearings at which new Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others will likely face tough questions on the conduct of the war, contracting practices and a soon-to-be-announced request for $100 billion in new money to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.