What Democrats Would Do

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Against their better judgment, the Democrats are starting to taste it. In the House, the number of Republican incumbents polling under 50 percent considerably exceeds the number of seats the Democrats need to pick up to make Nancy Pelosi speaker. Controlling the Senate depends on winning two of the contests in three Upper South states -- Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia -- that could go either way.

And then what? Putting a fleet of carts before a herd of horses, let's look at the legislation that the Democrats would push through the House and just maybe through the Senate. (Even if they win the upper house, of course, they'll still need the support of a number of Republicans to overcome a filibuster.)

In the House, the Democrats have made clear that there's a first tier of legislation they mean to bring to a vote almost immediately after the new Congress convenes. It includes raising the minimum wage, repealing the Medicare legislation that forbids the government from negotiating with drug companies for lower prices, replenishing student loan programs, funding stem cell research and implementing those recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission that have thus far languished.

All these measures command massive popular support. The reason they've not been enacted is that House Republicans have passed rules making it impossible for the Democrats to offer amendments to any significant legislation, thereby sparing themselves the indignity of having to choose, say, between the interests of their financial backers in the drug industry and their constituents.

Cognizant that they will owe their victory in part to the public's revulsion at the way Congress does (or avoids) business, the Democrats also plan to revise House rules to enable the opposition party to introduce amendments and to sit on conference committees, from which Republicans have routinely excluded them since Tom DeLay became majority leader. They also will ban members from accepting gifts and paid trips from lobbyists.

By bringing such measures to a vote in the House, and conceivably in the Senate as well, the Democrats will be in the enviable position of doing both good and well: promoting long-overdue policy shifts that the public supports and putting their Republican colleagues in a pickle. Confronted with an up-or-down vote on raising the minimum wage or making medication for seniors more affordable, many Republicans will side with the Democrats. Should the Democrats win the Senate, Republicans will have to calculate the risks of filibustering such mom-and-apple-pie measures. These bills will also pose a conundrum for conservatives such as John McCain, whose presidential aspirations have not been clouded by having to vote on these issues.

Should they make it through both houses, many of these measures will face a presidential veto. George W. Bush has already vetoed stem cell legislation, and he has staunchly opposed raising the minimum wage since the day he entered politics. What will congressional Republicans do if they're confronted with a series of vetoes of popular legislation? How large will the lame duck president loom in their calculations?

Not every issue that the Democrats will address if they control Congress will be so easy. The war in Iraq -- to which, if they win, they will owe their victory -- will surely prove the most nettlesome. If the Baker-Hamilton commission recommends a phased withdrawal, as some reports have speculated, the Democrats may be handed a relatively easy way out, whether or not the administration goes along with it. Should the administration persist in staying the course, Congress then could pass the kind of legislation it passed in the last years of the Vietnam War, stipulating the kinds of uses to which our military spending could -- and could not -- be put. At the same time, the ranking House Democrats in military matters -- Pennsylvania's John Murtha and Missouri's Ike Skelton -- might seek to increase the size of the Army, which the Iraq war has shown to be stretched to its limits.

In the course of this year's campaign, Democrats have been pleasantly surprised by the support their proposals for greater energy independence have won in all regions and sectors of the country. They will surely boost funding for alternative energy projects, which they see as a way not just to reduce greenhouse gases but to generate jobs as well. Many congressional Democrats also want to mandate stricter fuel efficiency standards, traditionally a cause that some auto-state Democrats have opposed, even though the Big Three's resistance to such standards is one reason their sales are plummeting.

"We're kidding around if we don't deal with that issue," says one leading Hill Democrat. "The time for that debate has arrived." It's part and parcel, he hopes, of life in the majority.


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