Democrats pass slew of Bills in 100-hour blitz

But real challenge is turning Bills into law, given White House opposition.

THE Democrat Party took charge of Congress earlier this month with the promise of a legislative blitz in the first 100 hours.

And as the clock ticks to its conclusion today, House Democrats are close to pushing through all of the six Bills they proposed, in a symbolic show of congressional power before President George W. Bush delivers his State of the Union address next week.

Already, they have rushed through Bills to implement the recommendations of the Sept 11 commission; increase the minimum wage; expand federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research; lower prices of prescription drugs; and cut interest rates on student loans.

Even before that, they had passed wide-ranging ethics rules, including a ban on gifts and meals from lobbyists and restrictions on travel provided by outside groups.

And today, they aim to wrap up their hundred hours by passing their sixth proposed Bill – ending subsidies for oil companies.

The accomplishment looks good on paper, and makes good their promise to voters in November’s mid-term elections. But they could soon discover that their agenda clashes with the interests of the Senate and White House, and two of the Bills will clearly not see the light of day.

Despite Republican criticism that the initial legislation was being put to the vote without being subjected to oversight, the Democrats pressed ahead with their agenda.

House Democrat leader Steny Hoyer told reporters: “We view the first 100 hours essentially as a mandate from the American people. We said to the American people, ‘If you elect us, if you put us in charge, this is what we are going to do and we are going to do it in the first 100 hours’.”

And they made good on a number of their election pledges.

The Sept 11 Bill aims to make the United States more secure by mandating full inspection of air and sea cargo entering thecountry and shifting more homeland security funding to communities with high-risk terror targets.

They voted to raise the federal minimum wage to US$7.25 (S$11) an hour. The Bill calls for an incremental increase over 26 months once the Senate passes it and it is signed into law.

The Democrats also approved a Bill that would cut the interest rate on many student loans by half, making college education more affordable.

The proposal would cost nearly US$6 billion and affect nearly 5.5 million students who get the subsidised loans each year.

And today, the Democrats are likely to pass a Bill rolling back multibillion-dollar subsidies for oil companies and working towards energy independence as a goal for the US.

In addition, they have passed legislation to enforce budget limitations.

This includes a rule that tax cuts must have either corresponding reductions in government spending or tax increases elsewhere to fund them. This is likely to threaten efforts to extend President Bush’s tax cuts.

But Democrats concede that it will not be a cakewalk turning these Bills into law.

A Democrat congressional aide told The Straits Times: “The first 100-hour agenda is largely symbolic; it is not a done deal.

“Some of the measures, such as the minimum wage, will get passed, but the Senate and White House could block others because they are guided by their own interests.”

One of the doomed Bills is the one allowing federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, as it did not get enough votes to overturn a veto that the White House has promised.

And if it passes the Senate, Mr Bush has threatened to veto the Bill requiring the government to negotiate with drug companies to lower the prices of prescription drugs.

There are also concerns that the Democrats might lose traction on domestic issues, given the need to address the situation in Iraq.

Indeed, after being pushed by Democrat leaders to respond to Mr Bush’s Iraq strategy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to back off from her initial stand that nothing should detract attention from her legislative proposals.

With Iraq overshadowing everything else, the Democrats’ domestic agenda for the next 100 hours, and after, is in danger of losing momentum.

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