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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Democrats plan legislative blitz with new power

All eyes here in Va are on Congressman Rick Boucher from Va as he steps up to the chair or vice chair of the House Energy Committee. He wants to make America enery free with coal. GO RICK!

Democrats set for 2-week legislative blitz -
Edward Epstein and Zachary Coile, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

(01-03) 15:54 PST Washington -- House Democrats, preparing to elect San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi as the first woman speaker in history, today laid out a plan for a two-week legislative blitz to adopt the agenda they presented to voters in the fall election campaign.
The Democrats plan to act quickly beginning with a series of ethics reforms after convening at 9 a.m. Thursday (PST) to elect the 66-year-old Pelosi to the top post and take control of the House held by Republicans the past dozen years.
"We ran on this agenda. We promised the American people we'd adopt it in the first 100 legislative hours and we will,'' Pelosi's top deputy, new Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, told reporters on Wednesday.
But Republicans complained that despite Democratic promises of greater consultation they were cut out of the drafting of the "six for '06'' legislation and won't be able to offer amendments to bills brought directly to the House floor without prior committee votes.
President Bush, faced for the first time in his presidency with a Democratic Congress, met with his Cabinet at the White House and proposed a plan to balance the federal budget within five years, eliminate most pork-barrel "earmarks'' that members insert into spending bills and called on Congress not to pass bills solely for political purposes.
Bush's ideas were met with more than a little skepticism among newly empowered Democrats in Congress because they represent policy items he has virtually ignored during his first six years in office.
Hoyer, laying out the Democratic plans, said the House is scheduled next Tuesday to enact such recommendations of the 9/11 commission as more spending on port and air cargo security, followed on Wednesday by a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 over two years.
Legislation that would allow expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is scheduled for the floor a week from today, followed on Jan. 12 by a law that would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug discounts.
Hoyer, referring to a Democratic proposal that legislation be available to House members in advance of votes, said copies of these four bills will go to the lawmakers by Friday.
The rapid pace is scheduled to continue Jan. 17 when the new Democratic majority takes up a bill that would cut interest rates on student loans. On the following day, the House plans to scrap about $20 billion in tax breaks for oil and gas companies, with the money diverted to programs to develop renewable energy.
"We want to be the do-something Congress, the do-good Congress, the do-the-American-people's-business Congress,'' said Hoyer, who added that he hopes the Senate -- which will have a razor-thin 51-49 Democratic margin -- will eventually pass the legislation.
If they keep to their ambitious schedule, the Democrats, who hold a 233-202 margin in the House, would pass their agenda before Bush delivers his State of the Union speech on Jan. 23.
Even before taking up the policy measures, the House plans to start Pelosi's historic tenure today by passing ethics reforms meant to signal a clean break with Republicans' often-controversial 12-year rule.
Pelosi plans to seize the momentum on a day that is usually ceremonial by asking the House to pass new rules banning all meals, gifts or travel paid for by lobbyists. She also plans new restrictions on lawmakers' use of corporate jets, an expensive perk abused by members of both parties.
"We will cut the link between lobbyists and legislation," Pelosi at a news conference last month. "I honestly believe that you cannot advance the people's agenda unless you drain the swamp that is Washington, D.C."
Congress also will vote on a rules package that's a clear shot at GOP leaders: It commits lawmakers to work longer; requires lawmakers be given more time to read legislation before they vote on it; ends the practice of keeping votes open for hours to twist arms and mandates that members of the minority party be allowed to participate in bipartisan conference committees.
Republicans, still adjusting to their role as the minority party, were irate Wednesday that Democrats were speeding ahead without the minority party's input.
"We are disappointed that half of the Congress is being cut out of the process,'' said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., who chairs the House Republican Conference. He and other GOP leaders accused Democrats of breaking their promise to voters to be more open and respectful of the minority party's rights in House proceedings.
Speaking of Pelosi, Rep. David Dreier, R-San Dimas (Los Angeles County) said, "I have been very reluctant to say anything critical of my fellow Californian. But when I've seen the reports that have come forward about the plans for this opening day package and the lack of consultation with the minority, I am very disappointed.''
But GOP leaders were grilled by reporters about why they hadn't given Democrats the same rights when the GOP ruled the House for 12 years. Rep. Eric Cantor, a top-ranking Republican from Virginia, admitted that Pelosi was right in 2004 when she asked GOP leaders to respect minority rights. "In hindsight, I think she was right," Cantor said.
Hoyer reiterated the Democrats' position that the bills being voted on in the next two weeks had for the most part been debated in the old session of Congress. He vowed that in the regular course of business, the minority will get more of a say.
At the White House, and in an opinion page article for the Wall Street Journal, Bush said his plan for spending restraint would lead to balancing the budget by 2012, three years after he leaves office. The plan will be formally unveiled when he offers his fiscal 2008 budget next month.
He also urged Congress to curb earmarks.
"One important message we all should take from the elections is that people want to end the secretive process by which Washington insiders are able to get billions of dollars directed to projects, many of them pork barrel projects that have never been reviewed or voted on by the Congress,'' he said.
But critics noted that in his first six years as president Bush never vetoed a spending bill, even as the number of earmarks skyrocketed from 4,126 in 1994 to 15,877 in 2005 and their value doubled to $47.4 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
Democrats plan on Friday to pass "pay-go" budget rules, which require new spending to be matched by cuts or tax increases. The package will include earmark reform aimed at making the practice more transparent.
Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., said the proof of Bush's good intentions will come in the president's proposed budget.
"His comments make us wary,'' said Spratt, who will chair the House Budget Committee. "They suggest that his budget will still embody the policies that led to the largest deficits in history."
Under Bush, the net cumulative federal budget deficit has totaled about $1.38 trillion, although it has fallen significantly this year as tax revenues ballooned.
Before the Democrats officially took power, Pelosi already was facing complaints from progressive activists that she is being too timid in refusing to cut off funding for the war in Iraq, rewrite the Patriot Act or launch impeachment proceedings against the president.
Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, and about 60 other anti-war activists interrupted a Democratic press conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill with shouts of "De-escalate! Investigate! Troops out now! The protest forced Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., and other Democrats to interrupt the media event.
"We're here to hold their feet to the fire," Sheehan said. "I think the Democratic leadership heard our message."
But Democrats say a better strategy is to begin with a series of initiatives that are popular with the public and likely to sail through Congress, which could build momentum to tackle tougher issues, such as Iraq policy, health care and tax reform.
"We've been given an opportunity here," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. "The main test that voters will look at in the next election is have we taken advantage of that opportunity? Have we followed through on the agenda for change that we laid out? Have we changed the way business is done in Washington?"
New House ethics rules
After being elected House Speaker today, Rep. Nancy Pelosi plans to ask lawmakers to vote on new ethics rules that seek to reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington. Among the proposals:
Gift ban -- the new rules would ban members of Congress from accepting any meals and gifts paid for by lobbyists.
Travel ban -- would bar lobbyists or the organizations employing them from financing or organizing travel for lawmakers, although it would allow certain non-lobbying groups with ties to lobbyists to continue to pay for travel.
Pre-approval -- lawmakers would have to get pre-approval from the House Ethics Committee for any trips paid for by outside entities, an effort to weed out expensive junkets.
Corporate jets -- would require lawmakers to pay the full cost any time they travel on a corporate jet rather than the discounted rate members often pay.
Revolving door -- would require lawmakers to wait two years before they can lobby their former colleagues in Congress.
K Street Project -- would ban the practice started by former GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas that led Republican lawmakers to pressure lobbying firms to hire Republican ex-members and top staffers.
Source: Chronicle staff report
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©2007 San Francisco Chronicle

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