House Democrats Prepare to Usher In New Era

In less than three weeks, the Democrats will take back control of the House of Representatives for the first time in a dozen years. They are already making news and showing what they plan to do, and where the problems lie.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The 110th Congress begins in less than three weeks, and it's clear that House Democrats plan on doing things differently than Republicans have for the last dozen years. Already, there are grumblings about some moves by the incoming Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and she's made a few stumbles as she tries to hit her stride.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi is normally quite guarded and very much on message in her public appearances, but at a well-attended Capitol news conference yesterday, she gave the slightest hint about the challenges of her new job.

SIEGEL: I am impressed by all of the decisions that the new speaker has to make.

NAYLOR: Pelosi made a lot of decisions over the last few weeks. Yesterday, she announced a new sub-committee to oversee intelligence agencies and their budgets, one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which Democrats promised to fully implement, was to overhaul the oversight and funding of intelligence. It's now the province of several different panels. Pelosi acknowledges the new approach will have its limits.

PELOSI: What we are doing, I think, is quite remarkable and new. And we can only act for ourselves in the House, so that we are taking this action in the House.

NAYLOR: The new panel will not set funding levels for intelligence, but it will examine proposed intelligence budgets and programs. The incoming chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Wisconsin Democrat David Obey, thinks it's a good idea.

DAVID OBEY: There were times when I tried to get the Appropriations Committee to investigate certain things that were happening in the Defense Department, for instance, when we were stiffed by the Republican leadership in doing that. This is meant to guarantee that nonsense like that doesn't happen anymore.

NAYLOR: Obey is in the middle of another key move by Democratic leaders - it's the decision to keep federal spending at current levels through the rest of the federal budget year, which ends at the end of next September. There will also be a yearlong moratorium on earmarks, the pet projects lawmakers had been inserting in to spending bills and increasing numbers. Obey concedes that will be unpopular with some of his colleagues.

OBEY: But in the end, you know, I would ask them - what other responsible choice is there?

NAYLOR: African-American Democrats have also been grumbling about Pelosi's decisions passing over Florida congressman Alcee Hastings for chairman of the Intelligence Committee and declining to return another black lawmaker, William Jefferson of Louisiana, to Ways and Means.

Jefferson is the focus of an FBI corruption investigation, though no charges have been filed, and he was reelected last week by a wide margin. Congressman Mel Watt of North Carolina, who now chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, says he's disappointed about the Jefferson matter, and notes this is not the first time where the Black Caucus and Pelosi have disagreed.

MEL WATT: This was one, obviously, the Alcee Hastings's appointment was another. You know, we're not angry at the speaker. You just have to keep working, and I can assure you one thing, she'll be a lot better than our relationships with the last speaker were.

NAYLOR: Pelosi's judgments also came into question, when the men she did pick to head the intelligence panel, Silvestre Reyes of Texas, showed an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the biggest terrorist threat the nation faces. In an interview, Reyes wrongly said it was Shiite Muslims who make up al-Qaida rather than Sunnis.

Perhaps, the most interesting institutional decision Pelosi has made is to set up a task force to study the idea of having an outside panel hear ethics complaints against lawmakers. It's something Congressional watchdogs have long called for. Political science professor James Thurber of American University in Washington.

JAMES THURBER: So this is a significant week in terms of change, reform, which she has promised to do through the expression of I'm going to drain the swamp of all the problems and make Washington work better.

NAYLOR: Still, a task force isn't quite reform, and lawmakers have previously balked at authorizing outsiders to judge them. Pelosi will have to navigate carefully not to alienate too many Democrats, while pushing the changes she and they promise.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, The Capitol

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