Sweeping back into power in both the House and Senate, Democrats Thursday launch a 100-hour legislative blitz to signal new management on Capitol Hill.
Early action will come mainly from the House of Representatives, where a 31-seat margin gives Democrats – led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the nation's first female speaker – more room to maneuver than in the Senate, where Democrats have just a two-seat margin.
Most items on House Democrats' early-action agenda had been rejected by the previous 109th Congress, when Republicans ruled. Among them are pocketbook issues that, Democratic leaders say, will directly impact the lives of Americans: a higher minimum wage, lower interest rates on student loans, and a provision to empower the government to negotiate lower prescription-drug prices for seniors.
Other measures slated for the fast track, which are popular among voters and have support from at least some Republican lawmakers, include more federal funding for stem-cell research, reduced subsidies for big oil companies, and implementation of more recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
At the same time, Democrats feel pressure – from their own caucus as well as from outside groups – to take up the tough issues that won them their majority, such as finding an exit strategy for the war in Iraq. That begins first in the Senate, where Democrats plan to begin hearings next week on the Iraq war, in anticipation of President Bush's expected announcement of a "new way forward" in Iraq.
The blitz on the House side begins Thursday with rule changes to break with the lobbyist scandals of the 109th Congress and ensure a more open government. Incoming Speaker Pelosi says the new ethics rules will change the GOP "auction house" back to the people's House, and give some rights to the minority.
Democrats campaigned to end the "culture of corruption" in Washington.
The House reform package would ban gifts and meals from lobbyists and the organizations that employ them, require pre-approval from the ethics committee for travel paid for by outside groups, prohibit the official use of corporate jets, require full disclosure of all earmarks, and consider creating an outside group to enforce ethics laws.
It also guarantees certain rights to the minority party, including adequate notice of meetings and time to review legislation.
But even before the final details on the new ethics rules were released, Republicans charged that they had been left out of the process – and hadn't seen a draft of proposed rules changes until a day before the vote.
"The idea that these are issues that have been around for a long time and that they don't need debate, that doesn't pass muster," said minority whip Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri at a press briefing Wednesday.
Other members concur. "You either believe in minority rights or you don't," says Jo Maney, a spokeswoman for Rep. David Dreier (R) of California, the outgoing chairman of the Rules Committee.
"When Republicans took control of the House in 1995 after 42 years, they pledged to restore minority rights by ending proxy voting and guaranteeing Democrats a vote on their own alternative bills. But with their slim majorities, Republicans often ruled out Democratic amendments on bills and held 15-minute votes open until GOP leaders could change the outcome on the floor.
In the new Congress, Republicans say they have no guarantee of a vote for their version of legislation.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, also plan to lead off with lobby and ethics reform this week, but will take more time for debate.
In the last Congress, the Senate passed a version of lobby reform by a 98 to 8 vote, but never reconciled its differences with the House over a final version of the bill. The Senate bill banned all gifts and meals from lobbyists and required lawmakers to wait two years before accepting lobby jobs after leaving Congress.
"The Senate passed a bill last year that will be the starter," says Jim Manley, a spokesman for incoming majority leader Harry Reid.
On the day before Congress officially convened, President Bush who will be working with a Democratic Congress for the first time in his tenure, called on lawmakers to make fiscal restraint a priority. He also asked Congress for the line-item veto, which would permit him to cut specific spending from legislation without vetoing the entire bill. He asked lawmakers to cut back on earmarks, or pet projects, and extend tax cuts. Bush said he will present Congress with a budget proposal next month that would balance the federal budget by 2012.
House Democrats already plan to make fiscal restraint a centerpiece of their agenda. They will vote to require pay-as-you-go budget rules as part of their "honest leadership, open government" rules package.
The Democratic caucus includes a record 44 members of the Blue Dog coalition of fiscal conservatives, who are expected to weigh in against unfunded new spending by freer-spending Democrats.
"We know that these moderates make the difference between being in the majority and being in the minority, and they will be given deference," said Rep. John Spratt (D) of South Carolina, incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, in an interview on C-SPAN Wednesday. He has led House opposition to soaring budget deficits in the Bush years.