By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 7, 2006
Democratic leaders, increasingly confident they will seize control of the House in November, are laying plans for a legislative blitz during their first week in power that would raise the minimum wage, roll back parts of the Republican prescription drug law, implement homeland security measures and reinstate lapsed budget deficit controls.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said in an interview last week that a Democratic House would launch a series of investigations of the Bush administration, beginning with the White House's first-term energy task force and probably including the use of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Pelosi denied Republican allegations that a Democratic House would move quickly to impeach President Bush. But, she said of the planned investigations, "You never know where it leads to."
In recent days, Democratic confidence has been buoyed by a series of polls indicating that not only is Bush growing increasingly unpopular, so are Republicans in Congress. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Friday found that 33 percent of the public approves of Bush's job performance, the lowest rating of his presidency. And only 25 percent approves of the job Congress is doing, a figure comparable to congressional approval ratings before the 1994 elections that swept Republicans to power.
The AP-Ipsos poll found that 51 percent of Americans say they want Democrats rather than Republicans to control Congress. Only 34 percent favor Republican control.
"We have to be ready to win," Pelosi said, "and we have to tell [voters] what we will do when we win."
Republicans say Democratic leaders run the risk of looking overconfident -- if not foolish -- in predicting they will win the 15 net seats necessary to take the House.
"If they fall short [of control], she's going to be severely damaged," Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said of Pelosi.
But Democratic planning parallels similar efforts 12 years ago, when GOP leaders were plotting a return to control after 42 years. By May 1994, Republicans had the outlines of a legislative agenda that would become their "Contract With America," said Richard K. Armey, who was the chairman of the House Republican Conference at that time.
Republicans then needed to pick up 40 seats, something most analysts considered virtually impossible six months before the election.
Democrats need to pick up 15, a task that many analysts still believe is a long shot. Democratic leaders do not.
"We are more and more confident that we are going to have the responsibility of leading the House, so we have to prepare," said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.).
Despite waves of redistricting that have solidified the positions of incumbents from both parties, Pelosi said 50 Republican seats are in play, while fewer than 10 Democratic seats face strong challenges. That figure of GOP seats is disputed by independent analysts, but even the most cautious estimates put more than 15 Republican seats in jeopardy.
Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said his most expansive estimate classifies 52 seats as "unsafe," 40 of them Republican, 12 of them Democratic. But, he said, only a tidal wave would dislodge the incumbent party from many of those seats, and more realistically, 30 Republican seats and five Democratic districts are vulnerable.
To seize control in 1994, Armey said, Republicans needed three key ingredients: scandal, which was provided by House members' abuse of the House bank and postal system; a policy fiasco, provided by the Clinton administration's failed national health-care plan; and a coherent plan of action, which came with the "Contract With America."
This year, the House is engulfed in bribery and influence-peddling scandals that have forced the resignation of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), sent former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) to jail, and yielded guilty pleas from two former DeLay aides and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
But those scandals are also linked to a Democrat, Rep. William J. Jefferson (La.), leading some Republicans to conclude they have been inoculated.
The war in Iraq has provided a policy debacle at least on par with the health-care issue, Armey said. But Democrats cannot offer policy alternatives because, he said, Americans remain leery of their prescriptions for an activist government and higher taxes.
To counter that perception, House Democrats have formulated a plan of action for their first week in control. Their leaders said a Democratic House would quickly vote to raise the minimum wage for the first time since 1997. It would roll back a provision in the Republicans' Medicare prescription drug benefit that prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services from negotiating prices for drugs offered under the program.
It would vote to fully implement the recommendations of the bipartisan panel convened to shore up homeland security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Democratic leaders said.
And it would reinstate lapsed rules that say any tax cuts or spending increases have to be offset by spending cuts or tax increases to prevent the federal deficit from growing.
Armey dismissed the substance of the Democratic proposals as demagoguery but said that the politics "really, frankly, are not too bad."
Pelosi also vowed "to use the power to investigate" the administration on multiple fronts, starting with the task force convened in secret by Vice President Cheney to devise the administration's energy policy. The administration has successfully fought lawsuits since 2001 that sought to reveal the names of energy company executives tapped to advise the task force.
"Certainly the conduct of the war" in Iraq would be the subject of hearings, if not a full-fledged House investigation, Pelosi said. Another subject for investigation could be the use of intelligence on Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction to make the case for the 2003 invasion.
Hoyer added that he would like to see investigations into the extent of domestic wiretapping by the National Security Agency, and the billions of dollars wasted by contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Campaign chiefs for Republican Senate and House candidates have already begun using the threat of such investigations to raise money and rile core Republican voters. A recent mailing by Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, warned that Democrats "will call for endless congressional investigations and possibly call for the impeachment of President Bush!"