House Democrats Trim Agenda

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By Ben Pershing
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, February 1, 2008

WILLIAMSBURG, Jan. 31 -- A year ago, newly empowered House Democrats gathered here at the Kingsmill Resort for their annual retreat brimming with confidence. Before them was an ambitious legislative agenda and a determination to end or curtail the U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

This time around, the hotel and golf courses are the same, but the song is markedly different. Gone is the talk of forcing President Bush to end the war, as is the impetus to pass a comprehensive immigration package and to stick to strict budget rules. Instead, Democrats are thinking smaller, much smaller.

They hope to leave today with the beginnings of a scaled-down plan to pass a handful of bills in the House -- even if they cannot get through the Senate -- and build a case for November that Democrats have been productive enough to warrant at least another two years in the majority.

"The agenda is, to some degree, a completion of the agenda that we started last year, as is usually the case in the second year of the Congress," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

Presidential election years are traditionally slow on the legislative front, and Democrats have a narrow majority in the Senate. Even in the House, the 290 votes the majority needs to overcome any Bush veto usually are not there.

Democrats may take their cue from the modest proposals in Bush's State of the Union address this week, which Hoyer called "thin."

But that does not mean the party's to-do list is blank.

Democrats need to pass a budget. They want to pass another energy bill. They would like to pump money into the Highway Trust Fund for road projects. They may reauthorize the No Child Left Behind education law. They have to push through appropriations bills.

Democrats also have not given up on Iraq, though they do appear to be moving away from their so-far-unsuccessful strategy of tying troop withdrawal language to money for the war. Based on the comments of leaders here, any Iraq timeline language that moves this year will probably move separately from funding bills.

And while Iraq was a huge topic of discussion at the 2007 retreat, the economy is the theme this time around. "That's what this conference is about, a four-letter word: J-O-B-S," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.).

The House is waiting to see what the Senate does with the stimulus plan it passed this week, and a second package could be on the way soon.

Of the House-passed stimulus bill, Hoyer said, "Our effort was not the perfect, but it was the possible, and that's what we're going to be focused on."


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