New Congress Unlikely to Rush Toughest Issues

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 27, 2006

Democratic lawmakers vow to come roaring out of the blocks when they assume control of the next Congress, passing several top-priority bills in the first 100 hours. Absent from that list, however, are the knottiest problems that bedeviled the outgoing Congress, including immigration, domestic surveillance and the war in Iraq.

Voters handed Democrats a mandate for change on Nov. 7, politicians and analysts agree. But party leaders are drawing a sharp distinction between popular, comparatively simple issues, such as raising the minimum wage, and more complex matters for which they have yet to propose solutions or even outline a plan for hearings.

The go-slow strategy carries some risks, the analysts say, because restless voters may see the new Congress as having no more boldness or problem-solving skills than the "do-nothing Congress" denounced in many political ads this fall. But Democratic leaders probably are correct in sensing that Americans will give them several months to tackle the stickiest issues, such as Iraq and immigration, provided something is done before the next election, these observers said.

Moving deliberately and cautiously on difficult issues "is a reasonable game plan," said Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, co-author of the book "The Broken Branch," a critical assessment of Congress. "You've got to come in and signal that you're about change," he said, but "you also want to show that you have your own agenda."

Congressional Democrats seem to be following that strategy with their plan for the 110th Congress's first 100 hours. The items include raising the minimum wage, enacting the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations, cutting interest rates on college loans and ending what the speaker-elect called "tax giveaways for Big Oil."

All those goals appear simpler than unraveling the nation's most contentious issues, chief among them Iraq.

"I think the Democrats are right to proceed cautiously on issues they cannot possibly resolve on their own," said Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution. "The public wants a change of course in Iraq but is far from settling on a clear alternative."

Congressional hearings, debates and reports are needed as a means of "leveraging public unhappiness and expert opinion to put enormous pressure on the president for a change of course in Iraq," said Mann, co-author of "The Broken Branch."

The Democrats' "Six for '06" campaign agenda included proposals for Iraq, but only in general terms. "Require the Iraqis to take responsibility for their country," it stated, "and begin the phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2006." Party insiders said top Democrats are unlikely to make more specific proposals until next month's scheduled release of findings by the Iraq Study Group, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III.

Immigration is another area in which Democrats are proceeding cautiously even though the Nov. 7 elections appeared to remove a major roadblock. The current Congress reached an impasse on illegal immigration, with the House Republican majority insisting on an approach that strongly emphasizes enforcement, while a bipartisan Senate group -- backed by President Bush -- sought broader changes, including guest-worker programs and pathways to legal status for illegal workers.

With Democrats poised to take over both houses -- and Bush in office for two more years -- the Senate approach would seem to have momentum. But party leaders have made no promises about when or how they might move an immigration package, which would involve at least five House committees. Moreover, it is clear that the election did not eliminate the nation's deep divisions over what to do about illegal immigrants.

"The elections definitely have raised expectations in immigrant communities that real reform is possible," said Josh Bernstein of the National Immigration Law Center, which supports broad-based changes to help illegal workers. "But it's still too early to say whether that will translate into actual legislation."

A major rewrite of immigration laws "is enormously complicated," Bernstein said, "and has deep effects on our economy, our identity, the kind of country we're going to be. There are a lot of interests that are very legitimate, whether it's business, worker unions or immigrants from different countries. . . . It's highly emotionally charged on all sides."

Congressional Democrats also are moving carefully on Bush's policy of allowing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without obtaining warrants on communications between the United States and abroad in the name of combating terrorism. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), who will chair the Senate intelligence committee, recently said he will have the panel sift through information and arguments before taking any legislative steps.

"We must insist on full access to the NSA warrantless surveillance program and the CIA detention and interrogation program," Rockefeller said. "Only then can we conduct thorough oversight of these programs and determine whether they are legal, appropriate and effective and what, if any, legislative action must be taken."

But Rockefeller is not ready to schedule hearings, draw up witness lists or indicate who might be subpoenaed, said his spokeswoman, Wendy Morigi. "We're not there yet," she said.

"There is a frustration level" about the lack of information provided by the administration to the Republican-led 109th Congress, Morigi said, adding that in the next Congress, "you'll see a much greater push for information."

But she indicated it will be consistent with the step-by-step, deliberative approach that congressional Democrats -- though flush with victory -- are adopting for the nation's most difficult issues.

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