- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

They made it to Washington. Now, the big question is whether they can make history.With Democrats firmly in control of the White House and Congress for the first time in 14 years, two hot wars, a deepening economic crisis and an ambitious reform agenda laid out by President-elect Barack Obama, the 111th Congress has a chance to claim a slot as one of the most productive and influential legislative sessions ever.

“History is in a hurry,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said shortly after the November elections, noting both the crush of major legislation and the soaring public expectations after Mr. Obama’s election as she introduced the new slate of House Democratic leaders.

“The American people have the right to have those expectations and to hold us accountable,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “We promise not to disappoint them.”

With the U.S. Senate race in Minnesota still hanging in the balance, nine new senators, 54 representatives and two delegates have taken their seats in the 111th Congress. The new House and Senate have between them a record 91 women, or 17 percent of the total.

From all accounts, it will be a working honeymoon. Ignoring the tradition of recessing until the new president is sworn in, lawmakers have gotten down to work immediately, starting to draft an economic stimulus bill and sparring over the fate of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout plan.

Even as the freshman members move in, furnish their offices, hire their staffs and learn the best shortcuts to get around the Capitol, they have been working from the very first day.

The first order of business will be historic: a precedent-shattering economic stimulus package that Democratic leaders had hoped would arrive on Mr. Obama’s desk on Jan. 20, the day he becomes president. But that hope has gone by the boards as lawmakers now say it will be mid-February at the earliest.

But the 111th Congress may well cement or squander its place in history by what happens next. Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats have talked hopefully of taking quick action on health care, energy policy and environmental law while unwinding the war in Iraq and revamping the Bush administration’s defense and national security policies.

If the past is any guide, the road ahead could be rockier than it appears.

First 100 days

In 1993, Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to occupy the White House, enjoyed Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress comparable to those with which Mr. Obama will work. Also like Mr. Obama, Mr. Clinton came to power after a lengthy Republican hold on the presidency.

As a candidate, Mr. Clinton promised a fast start.

“I’ll have the bills ready,” he told voters. “We’ll have a 100-day period. It will be the most productive period in modern history.”

However, the health care overhaul spearheaded by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton famously collapsed, and the two biggest bills passed in the early days of the 103rd Congress were the relatively modest Family and Medical Leave Act and a law easing requirements to register to vote.

The gold medalist for congressional hyperactivity - and the originator of the 100-day yardstick - traditionally has been the 73rd Congress, which was seated in March 1933.

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