- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2009
UPDATED:

Democratic congressional leaders expect to pass a massive economic-stimulus package and other pieces of long-sought legislation - such as expanded stem-cell research funding and more money for poor children’s medical insurance - in the first several weeks of the 111th Congress.

However, several top lawmakers are backing off their more extravagant early vows, to have economic legislation passed before President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office and their party assumes full responsibility for Washington’s performance.

Even if it completes those tasks, Congress will have its plate piled high with Democrats’ campaign promises for sweeping changes to everything from the health care system to how the country generates and uses energy.

Mr. Obama will meet Monday with the Democratic leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, to discuss the economic stimulus.

The plan is expected to spend heavily on New Deal-style infrastructure projects and could cost as much as $775 billion, stirring opposition from Republican and Democratic budget hawks.

But two of Congress’ top Democrats said Mr. Obama probably will have to wait until mid-February to sign any big economic bills, and that an Inauguration Day deadline was unrealistic.

“It’s going to be very difficult to get the package put together that early,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “But we certainly want to see this package passed through the House of Representatives no later than the end of this month, get it over to the Senate, and have it to the president before we break” in mid-February.

Mr. Reid said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that his chamber will do its “very, very best” to complete and pass a bill as soon as possible, but refused to commit to any deadline.

“We’re going to get it done as quickly as we can,” he said.

Robert Gibbs, Mr. Obama’s pick for press secretary, told reporters aboard the flight carrying the president-elect to the Washington area that he agreed with Mr. Hoyer that it was “very, very unlikely” an economic stimulus package would be ready by Jan. 20.

“We don’t anticipate that Congress will have passed [in] both houses an economic recovery and reinvestment plan by the time the inauguration takes places.”

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 renewables such as wind, solar and biofuels; modernize the country’s electric power distribution grid; impose lower 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 political future depends on accomplishing that feat.

“Governing as a national majority does not mean simply setting modest, middling goals,” Mr. Hoyer said shortly after the election. “It means ambitious goals, pursued thoughtfully, with time taken to win arguments and build the agreement that has so far eluded us. … Now our work is to turn from promise to progress, from speeches to statute.”

Mr. Obama has promised a new bipartisan tone in Washington, and will meet separately Monday with the two top Republicans on Capitol Hill - Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio.

But 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 President Bush.

With Mr. Obama in the White House and a new 58- or 59-member majority in the Senate, depending on the outcome of Minnesota’s contested election, the temptation will be strong to deliver paybacks to the Democratic base.

Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid 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 measure is a top priority for the Democrats’ union allies. 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.

Still, the bill’s supporters are confident.

“I have no doubt it will pass and will be signed,” said William Samuel, government affairs director for the AFL-CIO.

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 is 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 Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12.

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.

Other Democratic pet causes 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.

The Democratic majority also wants to revive the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would virtually eliminate the time limit for filing discrimination lawsuits. House Democrats say they will take up the bill again as soon as this month.

“It would not be a good idea for the new administration, in my view, to go down a laundry list of left-wing proposals and try to jam them through the Congress,” Mr. McConnell said. “I think that would not be a great way to start.”

Despite the Democrats’ hefty majority in the Senate, the chamber is known for its plodding pace, and an early partisan showdown over liberal pet causes could stall other business.

In a news conference shortly after the election, Mr. McConnell called on Democrats to tackle the big issues, such as cutting spending, paying down the national debt, providing speedy tax relief, pursuing a long-term strategy for energy independence and reining in out-of-control spending on Social Security and Medicare.

“These are the challenges Senator Obama campaigned on. They also happen to be issues on which Republicans and Democrats can agree. The American people are looking to us to resolve these issues. And Senate Republicans are ready to get that work done,” Mr. McConnell said.

The Kentucky Republican specifically warned the Democrats on Sunday against moving too quickly and without Republican input even on the economic stimulus bill.

“This is an enormous bill. It could be close to a $1 trillion spending bill,” Mr. McConnell said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Do we want to do it with essentially no hearings, no input, for example, in the Senate from Republican senators who represent half of the American population? I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Mr. Reid has said Democrats always have stood ready to work with Republicans to “pass legislation that helps people in their daily lives.”

“After Republicans in the last Congress opted for a strategy of blocking progress, the American people clearly rejected those partisan tactics,” Mr. Reid said in December. “They have given us another opportunity to work together in the 111th Congress as the people of this country expect, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to come up with solutions that will get our country back on track.”

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