A New Congress Pushes a Fresh Agenda

The first Democratically controlled Congress in 12 years opens for business Thursday. House Democrats have a 100-hour plan to pass popular legislation right away. But every move in Washington is likely to be colored in some way by the calculations of a bevy of 2008 presidential hopefuls.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

For several years now, Democrats have had very little influence over what happens in Washington. That changes tomorrow. Their party assumes control of both Houses of Congress. Their majorities are slim, but they will have the power to set the agenda. They'll decide what's voted on and what is not.

INSKEEP: To find out what happens next we've called in our political brain trust, NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson and our political editor, Ken Rudin. They guided us through the fall campaign, and you two must have won reelection because you're still here. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning.

RUDIN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what can a Democratic Congress be expected to do first?

RUDIN: Well, Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker in history, promises a very fast start - the 100 hours. She said on the first day she's going to have a big ethics package where lawmakers - limits what lawmakers can take from lobbyists, what trips they can go on. The second day they're talking about a big - well, certainly about raising the minimum wage, about earmarks, limiting pet projects. I think on the seventh day, Nancy Pelosi rests.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: What does that mean, 100 hours? That's 100 legislative hours, which is what?

RUDIN: That's correct. It could go over several days. But the point is they want to hit the ground running, similar to what Newt Gingrich did in 1995 with the Contract with America. The Republicans had been out of power for 40 years back then; they really tried to get a lot of things done quickly. Nancy Pelosi wants to do the same thing.

INSKEEP: Do the Democrats themselves agree sufficiently to pass anything that might ever become law?

LIASSON: Well, they certainly agree on those things that they've chosen to be their first 100-hour priorities. Don't forget, things like raising the minimum wage, having the government negotiate drug prices, getting more federal money for stem-cell research - those are very popular. Those are the things that the Democrats could find consensus on. Now other issues are going to be harder -Social Security, even Iraq, immigration. There are a whole bunch of issues coming down the pike that are going to be much more difficult, but I think the things that they chose for the first 100 hours of course are the things that they have consensus on. And don't forget, we're talking about the House of Representatives, where the Democrats have a big enough majority to pass these things. In the Senate there's only a one-vote majority. It's going to be a lot tougher; they're going to need Republican cooperation. And then of course all this will have to be negotiated with the White House.

MONTAGNE: Well when it comes to that Republican cooperation, how much bipartisanship or good will, if you will, could we be looking for, especially on such things as Social Security?

LIASSON: Well, you know, the White House has already signaled that the president seems to be willing to drop a lot of the preconditions he had on Social Security reform, like insisting that private accounts be carved out of the system, or saying that you could never raise taxes, in other words, you couldn't subject more income to Social Security taxes. If that's the case, who knows; they could maybe find a consensus, certainly on immigration. This Democratic House of Representatives is a lot closer to the president's position on immigration reform than the previous Republican one.

RUDIN: But at the same time, the president is warning Congress not to put in these political statements for the purpose of just making political statements in legislation, which is basically what Republicans have done for years as well with the Terry Schiavo legislation, with flag burning legislation. But the president has really put the Democrats on notice that he doesn't want any political statements coming out of legislation.

INSKEEP: Are Democrats willing to go along with that?

RUDIN: Well, look, there's a mood that came out of November 7th. They're tired of what happened - voters are tired of what has happened certainly in the last six years on Iraq, as Mara mentioned, on many social issues. I think there's more of a consensus on what the Democrats would like to pass in the next 100 hours, if not the next two years.

MONTAGNE: Let's turn to the question of presidential politics. The Republican Party seems to have a fairly open field at the moment, lots of names bandied about.

LIASSON: Yes, I think you're going to hear one of them today. Former Massachusetts Governor - outgoing Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is going to file papers with the Federal Election Commission, which will allow him to start raising and spending money for a presidential bid. This has already been done by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Senator John McCain. There are other Republicans eyeing a run - Newt Gingrich might announce later in the year, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback.

What's interesting about this field as it's shaping up is that there's no leading, natural conservative candidate that has a bond with the social conservative base of the Republican Party.

RUDIN: And if you accept the political wisdom that the top three - John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney - all three have serious problems with the conservative base of the party.

MONTAGNE: Well of course with the Democrats you've got John Edwards, but hardly - I mean, he'll be playing catch-up with two unannounced frontrunners.

LIASSON: That's right. Hillary Clinton has been considered the frontrunner for a long, long time. But then we've had this incredible phenomenon of Barack Obama, who is thinking about running. He made a trip to New Hampshire a couple weeks ago that was like, you know, Mick Jagger coming to New Hampshire.

RUDIN: Or Mara Liasson.

LIASSON: Yes.

INSKEEP: Well that was huge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: It was that very big.

RUDIN: It was very unbelievable.

LIASSON: Yeah, very big. But yes, so you've got these two 800-pound gorillas in the Democratic race, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. You've got John Edwards and you have a lot of Democrats who have taken a look at the race and decided it's not worth it.

INSKEEP: In just a couple of seconds, Ken Rudin, do you think that people are going to be able to get anything done legislatively if everybody is already running for president?

RUDIN: Well, you know, it's a very point, because look what happened in the last Congress when the Democrats had 45 members of the Senate; they were able to thwart Bill Frist and the Republicans on a lot of legislation. Now they're the minority, the Republicans have 49 members of the Senate. So it's very possible that they will be just, you know, a bottled up through the 2008 Election.

INSKEEP: NPR political editor Ken Rudin, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thanks, guys.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Mara Liasson, thank you as well.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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