Democrats flex muscle to mark their return

THE Democrats are back.

Taking charge of House and Senate for the first time since 1994, they flexed their new-found muscle immediately by launching a legislative blitzkrieg at their opponents.

The Republicans were warned that they would not be able to amend any of the first half-dozen Bills to be brought to a vote during the first 100 hours of the new Congress.

The Democrats also announced plans for an aggressive agenda that included minimum-wage increases, tougher ethics rules, lower drug prices and an expansion of stem-cell research. And Iraq loomed large as the most divisive issue in a fractious Congress.

The face-off was a harbinger of things to come: an inevitable head-on clash with Mr George W. Bush forced to open a fresh chapter in the twilight of his presidency. It marked the first time in his six years as President that Mr Bush will not have fellow Republicans controlling both chambers.

In her address on Thursday after being sworn in as the first woman in America’s history to be House Speaker – and just two heartbeats away from an accidental presidency – Mrs Nancy Pelosi made a pitch for bipartisanship to get the 110th Congress started on a productive note.

“I accept the gavel in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship,” she said. The new Senate majority leader Harry Reid took the same line. “Guided by the spirit of bipartisanship, Democrats are ready to take this country in a new direction.”

But the reality is that for the most pressing issues of the day, it will be hard for Democrats to work across the political aisle. This new “spirit of bipartisanship” will be tested most by the Iraq war.

Mrs Pelosi, who was surrounded on the House floor by her six grandchildren, made it clear that the recent mid-term elections were “a call to change” that went far beyond the Democrats’ taking of power from the Republicans.

“Nowhere were the American people more clear about the need for a new direction than in Iraq,” she said, adding that voters “rejected an open-ended obligation to a war without end”.

Amid applause, Mrs Pelosi said: “It is the responsibility of the President to articulate a new plan for Iraq that makes it clear to the Iraqis that they must defend their own streets and their own security…a plan that promotes stability in the region and a plan that allows us to responsibly redeploy our troops.”

The Democrats are expected to use their newly acquired committee chairmanships to build public support for a phased troop withdrawal from Iraq with a series of hearings examining the buildup to and prosecution of the conflict. The White House, on the other hand, is going ahead with plans to raise troop levels that are opposed by most Democrats.

Harvard professor Thomas Patterson, a leading expert on US electoral politics, said that Iraq would be a “lightning run” for the Democrat-controlled Congress.

“There will be accommodation on some issues where both parties see benefits in working together,” he told The Straits Times.

“The question really is on the hard choices. And Iraq falls at the top of that list, where the Democrats will find it hard to reconcile differences with Bush.”

Besides Iraq, there is likely to be spirited debate on other issues that might not be easy to resolve.

The first item on the House and Senate agendas in the coming days is ethics reforms to clean up how the scandal-rocked Congress does business.

There will be new barriers between lawmakers and lobbyists following a series of ethics breaches that led to four House Republicans resigning last year.

Democrats also plan to challenge Mr Bush again on expanding stem cell medical research, a measure he vetoed last year.

Lower borrowing costs for college tuition and cheaper prescription drugs for senior citizens also top their agenda.

On two issues, both parties could compromise. Mr Reid said he and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky would try to craft a bipartisan Bill to raise the minimum wage.

A simple increase of US$2.10 (S$3.20) per hour over two years will first be passed by the House. Senate Republicans and Mr Bush want new small-business tax breaks added.

The Democrats also want to balance the budget within five years, a goal Mr Bush has embraced.

Will the White House work with Congress?

The President had sought this week to extend an olive branch to the Democrats. But for a man determined to carve out his legacy in the twilight of his presidency, observers place little hope on him caving into pressures from his opponents.

A Republican strategist explained: “Don’t read too much into the peace overtures. This is a president whose words and actions don’t really match. Expect a bitter fight to the end.”

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