Democrats' Plans for Economy Unclear So Far

After taking control of both houses of Congress, Democratic Party leaders will almost certainly press for an increase in the minimum wage. Beyond that, the plans are less clear. Most Democrats opposed President Bush's tax breaks, but they may decide to let them stay in place for the time being.

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When you look at the list of probable committee chairmen and women in the Democratic Congress, you see names that correspond to some very liberal voting records. People like Henry Waxman of California, who will chair the House Government Reform Committee, and Michigan's John Dingell on Energy and Commerce. That could mean a much tougher environment for industries such as telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, financial services and defense.

But for now, both Democrats and business leaders are promising to work together, as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI: Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank is expected to chair the House Financial Services Committee, and Frank wants to use the post to highlight issues like wage inequity.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts) How do you promote economic growth or have policies that are supportive of economic growth but deal with this increasing inequality? Because I think you're going to find, you're already finding, that the average worker's sense of disengagement from the overall economy already has some negative consequences.

ZARROLI: But Frank says he thinks Democrats should strike a kind of grand bargain with business groups. If they'll support issues like union rights and affordable housing programs, Democrats will be cooperative.

Representative FRANK: I'd like to be for more trade, I'd like to be supportive of the ease of foreign investment, both to and from the U.S. and even outsourcing in appropriate cases.

ZARROLI: It's a safe bet that most major business groups prefer a Republican Congress, but they're doing a best to adjust to the new realities. Jay Timmons of the National Association of Manufacturers noted hopefully yesterday that the presumed House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is one of the smartest and savviest members of Congress.

Mr. JAY TIMMONS (National Association of Manufacturers): As she looks at the new majority, obviously she and the party officials are going to want to be able to govern for more than just two years. So how are they going to accomplish that? I believe they're going to try to reach across and extend an olive branch to non-traditional allies.

ZARROLI: In other words, he says, maybe Democrats and business groups will be able to find common ground on some issues. This spirit of conciliation was tested yesterday. Michigan Congressman John Dingell suggested he wants government regulators to scrutinize the merger of AT&T and Bell South more carefully. That sent telecommunications stocks down.

But for the most part, Democrats have tried their best to send reassuring signals. While Democrats have proposed some popular ideas like raising the minimum wage, they haven't yet set much of an economic agenda. New York Congressman Charlie Rangel, who's likely to head the Ways and Means Committee, won't even commit to eliminating the Bush tax cuts, which are deeply unpopular with many Democrats.

Representative CHARLIE RANGEL (Democrat, New York): I'm 76 years old, and I don't buy green bananas, and I think that what the economy looks like in 2010 will determine what the Ways and Means Committee will be doing in the area of taxes.

ZARROLI: Rangel spoke on NPR's NEWS & NOTES yesterday. Former Republican Congressman Steve Bartlett, who heads the Financial Services Roundtable, says he's worked with Democrats such as Barney Frank before and can do so again.

Mr. STEVE BARTLETT (Financial Services Roundtable): There's no doubt we'll have our share of both agreements and disagreements, but I think many in the Democratic leadership are people that are focused on some of the same issues that we are.

ZARROLI: Issues like predatory lending and the Sarbanes-Oxley Bill, which imposed a lot of new financial reporting regulations that many businesses find onerous. Business groups also know something else. If the spirit of cooperation dissolves, they have an ally in President Bush, who in the end has a veto pen at his disposal.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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