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Senate Could Give New President Early Legislative Victories

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 1, 2008

As Senate Democrats prepare for next year's agenda, they are likely to have a working filibuster-proof majority on a variety of legislative issues that could provide early victories for President-elect Barack Obama.

Though they are two votes short of their quest for 60 votes -- with two races still undecided -- Democrats say that regular support from a few Republican moderates will allow them to pass bills that were halted in the current Congress by GOP parliamentary roadblocks. These include health-care programs, immigration revisions and presidential nominations.

"The truth is . . . we will be fine on most major issues. We will almost always have some moderate Republican support," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

Voting rights in Congress for the District of Columbia is another example. Legislation to expand the House of Representatives from 435 to 437 seats by giving the District and Utah an additional vote each were three votes shy of the 60 needed to end a filibuster in September 2007. Eight Republicans voted with the Democratic majority, which is 51 to 49 and includes two independents.

Come January, seven Republicans who voted against the compromise plan to allow Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) to become a full-fledged member of the House will be replaced by Democrats. Aides said they are not clear when the legislation will be reconsidered, but some District voting-rights activists are so confident of passage that they are advocating a push for two District seats in the Senate. Norton, however, favors seeking just the House seats.

Democrats said much of their disappointment about falling short of 60 Senate seats dissipated when Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D) was declared the winner of the Senate race in Alaska, giving Democrats 56 seats, plus independents Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) and Bernard Sanders (Vt.), who caucus with them. Senate races in Minnesota and Georgia have not been decided.

Democrats are counting on moderate Republicans such as Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, who have tilted leftward on issues such as Medicare spending and the Iraq war, to provide the votes to block a filibuster.

"You're just one state away -- you're just Maine away -- in terms of who you need to work with," Klobuchar said.

Other potential swing votes are Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), whose socially liberal views make him a prospective Democratic recruit on spending matters and Obama's judicial nominations, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain has supported some Democratic initiatives that are likely to see early legislative action next year, including federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Senate Democrats, however, must watch their right flank as they craft more sweeping initiatives. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has supported the Bush White House on many tax and budget issues this decade, and a quartet of Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008 -- Begich, Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), Jon Tester (Mont.), and Mark R. Warner (Va.) -- all ran as centrists.

Republicans also expect that Democratic gains in the House and the Senate will showcase divisions among the party's wings, which largely put aside their differences in the past year in their pursuit of the White House.

Many of the Democratic pick-ups in the last two years have come in Midwestern and Southern districts considered Republican-leaning territory, and the House's Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats -- at 49 members and growing -- may clash on major issues with a largely liberal leadership.

"There are going to be a lot of differences among Democrats in the House and the Senate: Those who kind of share my view that you ought to govern in the middle; and those who have a sense of frustration that they've been out of power so long and want to go down and check the box and satisfy every left-wing group," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters last week.

Likely internal divisions among Democrats make it difficult to handicap the outcome of the biggest issues next year, particularly comprehensive efforts to secure universal health insurance and energy independence legislation, aides say. In the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), a moderate, is drawing up a health-care plan, while Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is drafting his own proposal from his health committee.

Here are some of the bills that stalled in the current Congress but may pass next year:

Health care: Democrats have pressed to give the Department of Health and Human Services authority to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prescription drug prices for seniors who participate in the Medicare Part D program, which passed Congress in late 2003. Shortly after taking power in 2007, House Democrats approved legislation approving such authority, over the objections of pharmaceutical companies and their lobbying group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

But the plan failed in the Senate, receiving 55 votes in April 2007. If they bring the issue back, Democrats start with an additional supporter, because Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who missed most of 2007 recovering from an aneurysm, supports the measure. In addition, six Republicans who voted against the bill are retiring or were defeated Nov. 4, all replaced by Democrats likely to support the measure.

Stimulus: Obama is proposing a stimulus package that could include $500 billion in new spending and $200 billion in middle-class tax cuts, but Democrats cannot be certain that they have the votes to pass such a major proposal. House Republican leaders have disparaged the costly proposals, meaning Democrats may have to find 60 votes to overcome a GOP filibuster.

Democrats appear to have a fall-back plan should that package run into trouble. They now hold a 60-plus majority on a smaller proposal to spend tens of billions of dollars on infrastructure construction.

In September, Republicans blocked that $61 billion package. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) mustered 52 votes for that plan, but three Democratic senators were missing. With the seven new Senate Democrats, Reid should be able to push through the smaller plan easily.

Civil rights: After the failure of sweeping immigration overhaul, Democrats scaled back their effort to focus on the DREAM Act. The legislation would have halted deportation efforts of children who are here illegally, giving them citizenship opportunities if they entered the country before age 16 and have lived here for five years.

That bill was blocked after receiving 52 votes, but four supporters were not present. For the 111th Congress, seven Democrats will replace Republicans who voted against the bill. Barring a push for broader immigration restructuring by Obama, Senate aides said this smaller measure should have enough support to pass.

In April, 50 Democrats and six Republicans supported legislation that would have amended the 1964 Civil Rights Act by allowing more time for workers to file discrimination complaints. Five new Democrats will be replacing Republicans who opposed the legislation named after Lilly Ledbetter, the female employee who lost her suit against Goodyear Tire and Rubber over discrimination claims. The Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter should have filed her claim within six months of the alleged incidents.

Foreign policy: Democrats expect to take their lead on Iraq from Obama, who has called for a near-total troop withdrawal within 16 months.

In the meantime, Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) may reintroduce his bill requiring that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan remain stateside for the same amount of time they had spent in battle.

Of all the antiwar measures considered in the 110th Congress, Webb's was the closest to passing. It attracted 56 votes on Sept. 19, 2007, with 48 Democrats, seven Republicans and one independent supporting a measure that would have limited the number of troops available to fight.

Five Democrats, each of whom opposed President Bush's handling of the Iraq war, are replacing Republican senators who opposed Webb's troop deployment bill.

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