By Lyndsey Layton and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 2, 2007
As they prepare to take control of Congress this week and face up to campaign pledges to restore bipartisanship and openness, Democrats are planning to largely sideline Republicans from the first burst of lawmaking.
House Democrats intend to pass a raft of popular measures as part of their well-publicized plan for the first 100 hours. They include tightening ethics rules for lawmakers, raising the minimum wage, allowing more research on stem cells and cutting interest rates on student loans.
But instead of allowing Republicans to fully participate in deliberations, as promised after the Democratic victory in the Nov. 7 midterm elections, Democrats now say they will use House rules to prevent the opposition from offering alternative measures, assuring speedy passage of the bills and allowing their party to trumpet early victories.
Nancy Pelosi, the Californian who will become House speaker, and Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who will become majority leader, finalized the strategy over the holiday recess in a flurry of conference calls and meetings with other party leaders. A few Democrats, worried that the party would be criticized for reneging on an important pledge, argued unsuccessfully that they should grant the Republicans greater latitude when the Congress convenes on Thursday.
The episode illustrates the dilemma facing the new party in power. The Democrats must demonstrate that they can break legislative gridlock and govern after 12 years in the minority, while honoring their pledge to make the 110th Congress a civil era in which Democrats and Republicans work together to solve the nation's problems. Yet in attempting to pass laws key to their prospects for winning reelection and expanding their majority, the Democrats may have to resort to some of the same tough tactics Republicans used the past several years.
Democratic leaders say they are torn between giving Republicans a say in legislation and shutting them out to prevent them from derailing Democratic bills.
"There is a going to be a tension there," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "My sense is there's going to be a testing period to gauge to what extent the Republicans want to join us in a constructive effort or whether they intend to be disruptive. It's going to be a work in progress."
House Republicans have begun to complain that Democrats are backing away from their promise to work cooperatively. They are working on their own strategy for the first 100 hours, and part of it is built on the idea that they might be able to break the Democrats' slender majority by wooing away some conservative Democrats.
Democrats intend to introduce their first bills within hours of taking the oath of office on Thursday. The first legislation will focus on the behavior of lawmakers, banning travel on corporate jets and gifts from lobbyists and requiring lawmakers to attach their names to special spending directives and to certify that such earmarks would not financially benefit the lawmaker or the lawmaker's spouse. That bill is aimed at bringing legislative transparency that Democrats said was lacking under Republican rule.
Democratic leaders said they are not going to allow Republican input into the ethics package and other early legislation, because several of the bills have already been debated and dissected, including the proposal to raise the minimum wage, which passed the House Appropriations Committee in the 109th Congress, said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Pelosi.
"We've talked about these things for more than a year," he said. "The members and the public know what we're voting on. So in the first 100 hours, we're going to pass these bills."
But because the details of the Democratic proposals have not been released, some language could be new. Daly said Democrats are still committed to sharing power with the minority down the line. "The test is not the first 100 hours," he said. "The test is the first six months or the first year. We will do what we promised to do."
For clues about how the Democrats will operate, the spotlight is on the House, where the new 16-seat majority will hold absolute power over the way the chamber operates. Most of the early legislative action is expected to stem from the House.
"It's in the nature of the House of Representatives for the majority party to be dominant and control the agenda and limit as much as possible the influence of the minority," said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "It's almost counter to the essence of the place for the majority and minority to share responsibility for legislation."
In the Senate, by contrast, the Democrats will have less control over business because of their razor-thin 51-to-49-seat margin and because individual senators wield substantial power. Senate Democrats will allow Republicans to make amendments to all their initiatives, starting with the first measure -- ethics and lobbying reform, said Jim Manley, spokesman for the incoming majority leader, Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
Those same Democrats, who campaigned on a pledge of more openness in government, will kick off the new Congress with a closed meeting of all senators in the Capitol. Manley said the point of the meeting is to figure out ways both parties can work together.
In the House, Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who will chair the Rules Committee, said she intends to bring openness to a committee that used to meet in the middle of the night. In the new Congress, the panel -- which sets the terms of debate on the House floor -- will convene at 10 a.m. before a roomful of reporters.
"It's going to be open," Slaughter said of the process. "Everybody will have an opportunity to participate."
At the same time, she added, the majority would grant Republicans every possible chance to alter legislation once it reaches the floor. "We intend to allow some of their amendments, not all of them," Slaughter said.
For several reasons, House Democrats are assiduously trying to avoid some of the heavy-handed tactics they resented under GOP rule. They say they want to prove to voters they are setting a new tone on Capitol Hill. But they are also convinced that Republicans lost the midterms in part because they were perceived as arrogant and divisive.
"We're going to make an impression one way or the other," said one Democratic leadership aide. "If it's not positive, we'll be out in two years."
House Republicans say their strategy will be to offer alternative bills that would be attractive to the conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats, with an eye toward fracturing the Democratic coalition. They hope to force some tough votes for Democrats from conservative districts who will soon begin campaigning for 2008 reelection and will have to defend their records.
"We'll capitalize on every opportunity we have," said one GOP leadership aide, adding that Republicans were preparing alternatives to the Democrats' plans to raise the minimum wage, reduce the interest on student loans, and reduce the profits of big oil and energy companies.
Several Blue Dog Democrats said they do not think Republicans can pick up much support from their group.
"If they've got ideas that will make our legislation better, we ought to consider that," said Rep. Allen Boyd Jr. (D-Fla.), leader of the Blue Dogs. "But if their idea is to try to split a group off to gain power, that's what they've been doing for the past six years, and it's all wrong."
To keep her sometimes-fractious coalition together, Pelosi has been distributing the spoils of victory across the ideological spectrum, trying to make sure that no group within the Democratic Party feels alienated.
Blue Dogs picked up some plum committee assignments, with Jim Matheson (Utah) landing a spot on Energy and Commerce and A.B. "Ben" Chandler (Ky.) getting an Appropriations seat. At the same time, members of Black and Hispanic caucuses obtained spots on these panels, as Ciro Rodriguez (Tex.) was given a seat on Appropriations and Artur Davis (Ala.) took the place of Democrat William J. Jefferson (La.) on Ways and Means.
Democrats acknowledge that if they appear too extreme in blocking the opposing party, their party is sure to come under fire from the Republicans, who are already charging they are being left out of the legislative process.
"If you're talking about 100 hours, you're talking about no obstruction whatsoever, no amendments offered other than those approved by the majority," said Rutgers's Baker. "I would like to think after 100 hours are over, the Democrats will adhere to their promise to make the system a little more equitable. But experience tells me it's really going to be casting against type."
"The temptations to rule the roost with an iron hand are very, very strong," he added. "It would take a majority party of uncommon sensitivity and a firm sense of its own agenda to open up the process in any significant degree to minority. But hope springs eternal."