What to Expect from the Democratic Agenda

The Hill's new leaders, from left

The Hill's new leaders, from left: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-NY) celebrate on Capitol Hill, Nov. 7, 2006 in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Scroll down for analysis of the Democratic agenda on:

  • Iraq
  • Iran and North Korea
  • Taxes
  • Health care
  • Federal minimum wage
  • Immigration
  • 9/11 Commission's recommendations
  • Environmental policy

"To the victors go the spoils," and so Democratic lawmakers are getting ready to claim the top leadership roles and committee chairmanships in both the House and Senate.

But there's another saying as well: "Be careful what you wish for, you may well get it." And so Democrats, having gotten what they wished for, may now find running the two chambers even more daunting than the last time they held them both at once (1993-94). That could be especially true given the strong-minded Republican president working down the street.

At the same time, the Democrats have come in from the political wilderness for a reason. The party's capture of control of the House and Senate is widely being interpreted as a repudiation of President Bush's policies and of Republican rule. And the president is showing some signs he's getting the message. On the day after the election, he announced the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, his controversial secretary of defense, and later in the week he met with the new Democratic leaders of the House and Senate.

So now Democratic lawmakers find themselves in the unaccustomed position of setting the agenda — at least for one branch of the federal government. And while party leaders have promised to govern in a spirit of bipartisanship, changes can be expected in congressional initiatives across a broad spectrum of issues — from U.S. policy in Iraq to health care, immigration, the federal minimum wage and the environment.

NPR reporters offer their analysis on what to expect from the new Democratic majority:

New Timetables, Phased Pullout Likely for Iraq

U.S. soldiers man a checkpoint in central Baghdad, Oct. 29, 2006.

U.S. soldiers man a checkpoint in central Baghdad, Oct. 29, 2006. The new Democratic majority leaders in the House and Senate are expected to call for phased reductions of U.S. troop levels in Iraq. Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images

With Democrats taking control of the House and Senate, there will likely be a shift in Iraq policy. Look for a renewed emphasis on goals and timetable, from training Iraqi troops, political reconciliation and economic development to a phased reduction in U.S. forces, which now number about 152,000.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) has disputed President Bush's repeated line that Americans will stay until the job is done. Levin, who is in line to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee, wants to impose some sort of deadlines so that Iraqis are forced to make compromises.

In July, Levin called for the phased reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq, starting by the end of the year. Contrast that with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who has said there may have to be increases in U.S. forces in Iraq. If the Republicans had retained control of the Senate, McCain was in line to become Armed Services chairman.

In the House, Democrat Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri is expected to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Skelton has said that as each Iraqi unit comes on line, a U.S. unit should come home. The Pentagon now says that there are 310,000 Iraqis who are trained and equipped. But an NPR reporter who recently visited with some Iraqi army units in Anbar Province found they had a small fraction of the troops they claimed.

Rethinking Direct Talks with Iran, North Korea

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Above, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both Democrats and mainstream Republicans on Capitol Hill are suggesting that the United States open direct talks with Iran to resolve the standoff over Iran's nuclear ambitions. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images

President Bush famously described Iraq, Iran and North Korea as part of an axis of evil and has vowed to keep nuclear weapons our of their hands. His policy toward each of these three nations has been criticized from both sides of the aisle.

Foreign policy is traditionally the president's domain, and members of Congress have had little influence over U.S. policy toward Iraq, Iran and North Korea. But that could change, as each of these crises reach a potential turning point.

North Korea has tested a bomb and is under U.N. sanctions. Many Democrats want to see the United States open direct talks with Pyongyang to ease the crisis. President Bush has resisted, saying he thinks he is in a stronger position negotiating with North Korea alongside other regional powers, including China and South Korea. But the talks have been stalled, and Democratic Senators Carl Levin (MI) and Jack Reed (RI) say the only way to revive them is to reach out to Pyongyang.

On Iran, the issue of direct talks is the topic of heated debate as well. The United Sates has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 revolution. The focus of the Bush administration's diplomacy is to persuade the U.N. Security Council to ratchet up pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Some in the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party say the United States should bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. That has raised fears on Capitol Hill, where both Democrats and mainstream Republicans are suggesting that the United States talk directly with Iran.

How Will a Democratic Congress Approach Taxes?

Most Democrats opposed the tax cuts pushed by the Bush administration and passed by Republican lawmakers. Those changes lowered the top tax rates for high income wage earners, reduced the capital-gains and dividend tax rates, and cut the estate tax.

But it's unlikely that Democrats would squander their new-found popularity around the country by raising taxes or repealing high-profile tax cuts. That would hand Republicans potent ammunition for 2008. So here's what we might expect to see in the coming months:

Rep. Charles Rangel of New York is likely to be the next chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He has said he wants to avoid a fight over estate and capital-gains tax breaks that benefit many wealthy individuals, and which expire in 2010.

"Why should we be talking about 2010?" Rangel said in late October. "I'm 76 years old, and I don't buy green bananas."

If Democrats are still in the majority in four years, they are likely to let the tax breaks expire rather than repealing them earlier.

There are some tax proposals that Democrats and Republicans could agree on:

- Extending the college tuition deduction

- Fixing the "Alternative Minimum Tax," which was designed to close loopholes for the wealthy but that now imposes higher taxes on middle-income families. Because it's not indexed for inflation, the tax threatens to affect millions more people than it was originally intended for.

- Extending the expired research-and-development tax credit for businesses.

Democrats might find it more politically feasible to raise taxes for some companies –- or at least to cut some of their tax breaks. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the likely next speaker of the House, has already called for ending "tax giveaways" to oil companies as well as bargaining with pharmaceutical companies for cheaper drug prices for federal health programs. Rep. Charles Rangel has said he wants to "end tax shelters for companies that move American Jobs overseas."

Democrats have been vocal opponents of the ballooning deficit. But they will be hard pressed, as Republicans have been, to rein it in. Ultimately, to do that, they'd have to cut spending, raise taxes, or both. And that's something they probably won't want to do in any dramatic way before the presidential election in 2008.

Health Care: A New Beginning

Seniors sort through prescription drugs

Democrats plan to make several changes to Medicare's prescription-drug benefit, including giving the federal government the authority to negotiate directly with drug makers for lower prices. Jeff Topping/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Topping/Getty Images

With Democratic control of the House and Senate comes a dramatically different agenda on health care.

Gone will be the GOP-led efforts to expand tax-preferred health savings accounts for individuals. No more talk of so-called associated health plans for small businesses.

In their place will be new efforts to address the uninsured, likely through the creation of a purchasing pool similar to the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan. Look also for an attempt to overhaul the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, about to enter its second year.

Another top priority — which would have been a top issue even if Republicans had retained control — is the renewal of the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program, SCHIP. It is set to expire in 2007. But that effort could be hindered by budget limitations, the main limiting factor for most of the items on the Democrats' health care wish list.

Bills to expand federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, and legislation to make it easier to purchase prescription drugs from Canada and other developed nations, could also make an early appearance under Democratic control. But both bills are likely to prompt presidential vetoes that even the newly reconfigured chambers will lack the votes to override.

Less clear will be the administration's attitude towards changes to the new Medicare law. Backers of the measure have been adamantly opposed to any changes — even some they privately supported — until now, for fear any reopening of the controversial measure would lead to its complete unraveling.

The first change House Democrats have vowed to make in their first 100 hours (not days) is to give the federal government authority to directly negotiate prescription-drug prices with their manufacturers. Under the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug law, such direct negotiation is specifically outlawed — a boon to the drug companies, who feared such negotiation would rapidly become price setting.

But while the move would be popular with voters, congressional and administration budget analysts insist that federal Medicare officials would be unlikely to cut a better deal with drug companies than the private health plans that are doing the negotiating now.

Democrats would also like to reduce payments to managed-care plans that serve Medicare patients. Government analysts say the current payments are about 12 percent too high. Democrats would also like to close the gap in Medicare’s drug plan, which has left many elderly patients paying at least several thousand dollars out of pocket for prescription drugs each year. But passing such legislation won’t be easy: Reducing payments to health plans is likely to be strongly opposed by President Bush, and closing the insurance gap would cost federal dollars that Congress will be hard-pressed to find.

Renewed Push to Raise the Minimum Wage

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) calls for a minimum-wage hike in August.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) calls for a minimum-wage hike in August. Now that the Democrats have taken control of the House and Senate, they are likely to renew their efforts to raise the federal minimum wage. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images

The Democrats want to raise the minimum wage from the current level, $5.15 an hour, to $7.25 through a three-step phased increase. If a bill passes, it would mark the first change in the federal minimum wage since 1997.

In his post-election press conference, President Bush seemed open to some sort of increase.

"There's an area where I believe we can make some, find common ground," the president said. "And as we do, I'll be, of course, making sure . . . there's compensation for the small businesses in the bill."

Some economists argue that increases in the minimum wage raise labor costs and push businesses to actually cut low-wage jobs.

The minimum-wage issue proved popular in Tuesday's election. Voters in six states — Ohio, Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana and Missouri — passed increases. Average support at the polls was 65 percent.

Democrats tried to pass a federal minimum-wage increase last summer. But Republicans demanded that they cut the estate tax as well. Democrats decided they would rather let the minimum wage measure die if it meant cutting taxes on the rich.

Finding Common Ground with Bush on Immigration

A Customs and Border Protection agent drives along the border wall in San Ysidro, Calif.

A Customs and Border Protection agent drives along the border wall in San Ysidro, Calif. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images

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While the Democrats' new power in Congress may mean trouble for the Bush administration on some issues, it could help the president on immigration. President Bush has long called for a guest-worker program, and on Wednesday he said he sees "common ground" on that with Democrats.

The president's main obstacle had been his own party's hard-liners in the House, many of whom saw illegal immigration as their campaign trump card. Their ads blasted Democratic opponents for supporting "amnesty." They touted their own vote for a wall along the Mexican border. Some likened illegal immigration to a "war" more consequential than Iraq.

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg says it all backfired: The strategy didn't work, and the GOP ended up alienating Hispanics, the fastest-growing part of the U.S. electorate. It's a mistake that "could cost them for a generation," he says. The new Democratic majority, he says, is likely to be open to working with the president on comprehensive immigration reform.

But Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants less immigration, argues that illegal immigration failed to boost the GOP's support at the polls only because Democrats had adopted similar stances on the issue. He points out that many Democrats sounded just as tough as their opponents on immigration. If they support large-scale legalization, they didn't talk about it on the campaign trail.

Many of the newly elected Democrats are from more conservative parts of the country, where issues such as border security play well. Republican pollster Ed Goaes points out that there are already three dozen so-called "blue dog Democrats" — social and fiscal conservatives within the party — who'll be returning to Congress, and they may or may not toe the party line.

There are other divisions. Many African-American Democrats are not keen to legalize a workforce they view as the competition.

Still, Goaes thinks there will be public pressure for members of Congress to keep at it on immigration. His surveys find a substantial proportion of voters believe the border wall is not a solution, but a first step. Half or more —- depending on party and region — support legalizing foreign workers.

Revisiting the Sept. 11 Panel's Recommendations

A tug boat docks near a cargo ship at the Port of Miami.

A tug boat docks near a cargo ship at the Port of Miami. The new Democratic majority in Congress says it wants 100 percent of the cargo bound for the United States in ships and airplanes to be screened for dangerous materials. Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Democrats say that one of their first actions in the new Congress will be to implement all of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. But it’s not exactly clear what that means, since some of the commission’s 41 recommendations are vague.

The Bush administration argues that most of the panel's proposals have either been implemented or acted upon by Congress. For example, one of the main recommendations was the creation of a centralized office to oversee all U.S. intelligence operations; in response, Congress created a new director of national intelligence office nearly two years ago. Congress has also acted over the past two years on legislation to strengthen security at U.S. borders, ports and chemical facilities — all along the lines of the commission’s recommendations.

Still, there’s much more to be done, according to Democrats.

They note that police, firefighters and other emergency personnel still don’t have enough equipment to communicate with each other during disasters.

And Democrats say they want 100 percent of the cargo bound for the United States in ships and airplanes to be screened for dangerous materials. The question is whether the new Congress will be willing to take the steps needed to accomplish these things.

Other commission recommendations might face more resistance. One calls for the distribution of homeland security funds to state and local governments based on "risk," not political considerations. However, there's no real agreement on what "risk" means, and the biggest resistance to that proposal all along has come from both Democratic and Republican members of Congress who think their communities would lose out. It's not clear how that will change with the Democrats in control.

Also, the commission called for more centralized congressional oversight of homeland security. But there's been a reluctance among many committee chairmen to relinquish jurisdiction to the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees. It's not clear that that reluctance will be any different under Democratic control.

Still, the Democratic Congress is more likely to provide additional funding for homeland security, as well as more oversight of what exactly the administration is doing to protect the country from terrorist attacks.

Climate Change to Get Congressional Hearing

An oil rig near the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in Los Padres National Forest, Calif.

An oil rig near the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in Los Padres National Forest, Calif. Democrats also hope to use their power in the majority to increase the scrutiny of the way the Bush administration has been running the EPA and Interior Department. David McNew/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption David McNew/Getty Images

Environmental issues likely will get a lot more attention with Democrats in control of the House and Senate. The current chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), calls global warming a "hoax." The senator who plans to take his place, Barbara Boxer (D-CA), says climate change is "the challenge of our generation."

Boxer says she'll fight for a mandatory federal policy to cut climate-change emissions, along the lines of what California has done. California's law requires a reduction of greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who expects to be the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, says he'll also work to pass mandatory caps on the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute climate change. But Bingaman takes a less aggressive approach than Boxer does.

Boxer admitted it "isn't going to be a piece of cake" to get such complicated legislation through the Congress, even with Democrats holding the majority in both houses. Controlling greenhouse gases is not at all popular with the auto industry and power sector. The likely chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. John Dingell (MI), has fought against tough fuel-economy standards for vehicles in the past. And the likely chairman of the House Resources Committee, Nick Rahall (D-WV) is from coal country.

Climate change isn't the only environmental priority for Democrats. They also want to do away with some tax cuts and royalty relief granted to oil and gas companies. And they want to undo some exemptions that industry was given from environmental laws. They plan to push laws that promote energy efficiency and the development of renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and biodiesel.

Democrats also hope to use their power in the majority to increase the scrutiny of the way the Bush administration has been running the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department. Democrats have accused these agencies of ignoring or manipulating science to benefit industry.

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