WASHINGTON – Ethics reform, a higher minimum wage and more money for stem cell research are the top items on the Senate agenda next year, incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday.
Reid said he will tackle those priorities after cleaning up the "financial mess" that the outgoing Republican leadership has left. He was referring to nine long overdue appropriations bills covering 13 Cabinet departments for the budget year that began Oct. 1.
"They're just leaving town, it appears," Reid said from his office in the Capitol. "We hope that's not the case, but it appears that's what they are going to do. And so we're going to have to find a way to fund the government for the next year."
The must-pass legislation totals more than $460 billion and promises to divert time and energy from other items on the Democratic agenda.
Reid also said he's doing away with the "do-nothing Congress" that Democrats campaigned against this year as they ousted the Republican majority in both chambers of Congress. The Nevada Democrat, who is wrapping up his final days as Senate minority leader, will take control of the Senate agenda when the new Congress takes the oath of office in January.
"We're going to put in some hours here that haven't been put in in a long time," Reid said. That means "being here more days in the week and we start off this year with seven weeks without a break. That hasn't been done in many, many years here."
Reid said he hopes that President Bush is willing to work with the Democratic congressional leadership, but the early signs have not been encouraging. He said the White House has not reached out to him since his meeting with Bush in the Oval Office on Nov. 10. "Sorry to say," Reid said.
Bush used the only veto of his presidency so far to reject a bill passed by Congress last year that would have expanded embryonic stem cell research through government funding.
Supporters of such research say it could lead to treatments and cures for a wide variety of ailments, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries. Bush and abortion foes, however, have opposed embryonic stem cell research because the embryos die in the process of harvesting the stem cells from them.
Reid said he hoped the president "will relent and see the light" that the research gives hope to Americans struggling with illnesses and injuries. He said the Senate is "not even close" to having the two-thirds vote necessary to override Bush's veto, but he hopes some Republicans will join the Democrats after losing the election this month.
The election came on the heels of several ethical scandals involving lawmakers, and Reid said reform is needed. He said "the first thing we do" will be to try to cut the practice of lawmakers anonymously inserting "earmarks" — narrowly tailored spending that often helps a specific company or project in their district — into bills.
Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog group, said there were 9,963 such projects in the spending bills for the 2006 budget year, costing $29 billion.
The third item at the top of Reid's agenda is increasing the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour. The White House has signaled that Bush may be willing to consider the proposal.