- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Congress’ Democratic leaders opened the session eager to advance an agenda long frustrated by President Bush but then quickly asserted their independence from President-elect Barack Obama as well, wrangling over a $800 billion economic rescue destined to be a signature program of the new administration.

The Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will have to hone their working relationship as they attempt to scale a mountainous agenda for sweeping changes to everything from the health care system to how the country generates and uses energy, including promises to tackle the political third rails of Social Security and Medicare.

In the first tussle, Senate Democrats knocked Mr. Obama’s proposed economic stimulus of $3,000 business tax credits to hire or retain workers and a $1,000-per-couple middle-class tax cut distributed in workers’ paychecks.

The tax-cut package, about $300 billion, would make up 40 percent of the spending bill and is a key component luring support of Republicans, who have positioned themselves to be Capitol Hill’s budget hawks as the federal deficit is set to balloon to a record $1.2 trillion before a dime is spent to goose the economy.

Mr. Obama said he is ready to work in a collaborative fashion with Congress but will not tolerate delaying the rescue, which he is selling to the public as vital to averting economic doom.

“What we can’t do is drag this out when we just saw half a million more jobs lost,” Mr. Obama said after Democrats began quibbling over the tax measures. “You know, the American people are struggling. And behind the statistics that we see flashing on the screens are real lives, real suffering, real fears. And it is my job to make sure that Congress stays focused in the weeks to come and gets this done.”

But there are many goals Capitol Hill Democrats and Mr. Obama share, such as the first House-passed bills that would ease limits on pay discrimination lawsuits and an upcoming bill to expand a government health insurance for poor children.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Democrats were excited about working with a White House that shares their values and objectives but that they would not be a rubber stamp for the administration.

“My role is, as an independent member of the Congress of the United States, to ensure that the executive operates consistent with the policies set under Article I by the Congress of the United States,” the Maryland Democrat said. “And we intend to do that and will do that.”

Other Democratic aims for the session are to create a universal health care system; mandate a national electronic medical-records system; redirect energy spending to renewable sources, such as wind, solar and biofuels; modernize the country’s electric-power distribution grid; impose more stringent carbon-emissions standards to address climate change; rebuild the armed forces and reprioritize defense spending; place tougher regulations on Wall Street; and consider comprehensive immigration reform.

Any one of these proposals would be daunting.

Together, the plans amount to an attempt to transform the federal government, and Democrats say their party’s political future depends on accomplishing that feat.

Democrats also harbor much pent-up desire to pass a liberal agenda after a dozen years in the minority and after running Congress the past two years only to see legislation die in a narrowly divided Senate or fall to a veto by a Republican president.

With Mr. Obama in the White House and a new 58- or 59-member majority in the Senate, depending on the outcome of a court challenge to Democrat Al Franken’s win in a recount of Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race, the temptation will be strong to deliver paybacks to the Democratic base.

“We have arrived,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said at a recent Capitol Hill news conference, boasting of “big, strong majorities” that can push through legislation.

Some of the Democrat’s pet causes on the agenda this year include offering domestic-partner benefits to federal employees; allowing unionization of Transportation Security Administration workers, who are currently denied that right because of national security concerns; and authorizing the federal government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower “group rate” prescription-drug prices for Medicare patients.

Mrs. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, back a card-check bill that would allow unionization of a workplace if the majority of employees sign union cards, eliminating the secret ballot that workers cast to decide whether to allow a union.

The bill, dubbed the Employee Free Choice Act, passed the House last year but died in a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate. The unions, which hope to boost their stagnant ranks, are confident the measure will become law.

The question is how soon will Democratic leaders bring up the bill and risk political defeat while suffering criticism for kowtowing to union bosses. Republicans vow to stand firmly against the legislation. Their argument in defense of a secret ballot, which is a cornerstone of American democracy, will take considerable effort to rebuff.

Another action blocked by Republicans last session and high on the Democrats’ wish list this year is to allow the District a voting member in the House, which Republicans oppose because it’s guaranteed to add another Democratic vote.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District’s nonvoting congressional representative, called on Congress to pass the bill by Feb. 12, the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

However, Democratic leaders would not make a commitment on when the District of Columbia Voting Rights Act would appear on the schedule, though they reaffirmed that it would be a priority.

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