Democrats Take Charge In Congress
01-05-2007, 02:20 PM
Democrats Take Charge In Congress
Democrats ushered in a new era of Congress yesterday by electing the first woman to one of the nations top political offices, then making sweeping changes to lobbying and ethics laws, touting them as a necessary response to last years scandal-tainted congressional session.
With Representative Nancy Pelosi of California freshly installed as speaker of the House reaching the highest rank of any woman in the history of the US Congress Democrats wasted little time in banning House members from accepting travel and gifts from lobbyists.
After receiving the speakers gavel from House Republican leader John A. Boehner , Pelosi promised a new direction on domestic policy issues in the 110th Congress. She vowed to work with President Bush and other Republicans.
Its a historic moment for the Congress and a historic moment for the women of America, Pelosi told her colleagues shortly after defeating Boehner, an Ohio Republican, for the speakership on a 233-to-202, party-line vote. I accept this gavel in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship, and look forward to working with you on behalf of the American people.
But she also challenged President Bush on his agenda and the nations involvement in the war in Iraq.
The election of 2006 was a call to change not merely to change the control of Congress, but for a new direction for our country, she said. To cheers from fellow Democrats, she declared: Nowhere were the American people more clear about the need for a new direction than in the war in Iraq. The American people rejected an open-ended obligation to a war without end.
Pelosi and her leadership team made ethics and lobbying reform their first item of business, acknowledging the voter outrage over scandals in the last Congress, an issue that helped hand them control of Congress for the first time in a dozen years.
Today, Congress is slated to take up the issue of so-called earmarks pork-barrel spending bills quietly added to unrelated legislation by voting on a measure that would require sponsors of those bills to publicly identify themselves. Also on the Democrats early agenda is a requirement for pay-as-you-go budgeting, whereby any new federal spending programs must be offset by a corresponding budget cut or revenue increase.
Starting next week, House Democrats will attempt to deliver on their 100 hours package of legislation, a series of campaign promises to be kept during the opening days of the session. Their list includes a minimum-wage hike, expanded federal funding for stem-cell research, lower interest rates on student loans, and a series of new national security initiatives, including expanded cargo screening and upgraded communications equipment for emergency workers.
The rules package Congress approved yesterday which took effect immediately because it involves internal House regulations and does not require the presidents signature bans lobbying organizations from giving gifts or sponsoring travel for lawmakers. In addition, lawmakers can no longer accept free trips on corporate jets; those who want to travel on the expense accounts of private entities now must get approval beforehand from the House ethics committee.
We made a promise, individually and collectively, that we were going to change the way Washington does business, said Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. What we are doing right here is changing the relationship between lobbyists and legislators.
The package, however, includes a possible loophole. Under the rules changes, not-for-profit foundations can still pay for lawmakers travel, and lobbyists could set up nonprofit organizations to get around the restrictions, unless the ethics committee steps in.
Critics note the legislation doesnt address the call for an independent office to enforce ethics rules, a step some government watchdog groups say is the best way to ensure compliance. Members of Congress will still police themselves through the House and Senate ethics committee, at least for the next several months while a bipartisan group of lawmakers debates whether more enforcement steps are necessary.
The devil will be in the details of the enforcement, and the enforcement mechanism is not there, said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
Republicans derided Democrats for offering proposals for open government via a measure that members of Congress were not allowed to amend. Representative David Dreier , who was often criticized for muzzling Democrats when he was chairman of the House Rules Committee, said he was disappointed that newly empowered Democrats have sidelined Republicans and told them that they will have to wait until later to join in legislative debates.
What we have is an IOU now, a wink and a nod and a gentle, Trust us, said Dreier, a California Republican. They talked about the need for enhanced minority rights. . . . We see a prevention of an opportunity for the sun to shine.
But Democrats stood by their plan to move quickly on pre-determined legislation during the opening days of Congress. Representative Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat who helped craft the ethics and lobbying changes, said Democrats have talked about their plans for more than a year, so Republicans shouldnt have been surprised.
The American people demanded it in the last election, and Speaker Pelosi and the new Democratic Congress are delivering on that request, Meehan said. They sent a message loud and clear, that it was time to clean up the Congress.
In the Senate, Democrats took the reins of power by the slimmest of margins 51-49, with one colleague, Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota, out indefinitely, recovering from brain surgery. New Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised to call on Republicans to help tackle major issues.
Some may look at this composition as a recipe for gridlock, but I see it as a unique opportunity an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to debate our differences and seek common ground, said Reid, Democrat of Nevada. The president has 22 months left in office. If he wants to accomplish anything, he will have to work with us in Congress to pass bipartisan legislation.
Reid unveiled the Democrats list of 10 top priorities for the new Senate session, a list that closely mirrors the major House priorities but also includes the politically explosive issue of immigration reform.
Reid quickly pointed out that he and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will collaborate on the first two agenda items: ethics reform, and increasing the minimum wage. On immigration, Democrats including Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts have already begun discussions with the White House about the best way to proceed.
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