Hill's Wild Week: Bills Pass, Iraq Debate Flares

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House Education and Labor Chairman Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH). i

House Education and Labor Chairman Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) discuss legislation to raise the national minimum wage. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
House Education and Labor Chairman Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH).

House Education and Labor Chairman Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) discuss legislation to raise the national minimum wage.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

What do you get when you have a new Congress, a defensive president, and a war going badly? Four bills, two veto threats, one White House speech and testimony from a couple of Cabinet officials on Capitol Hill.

House Democrats hoped to make a splash by bringing to the House floor four bills in four days. First it was a 9-11 Commission recommendations bill that would, among other things, require that every package to enter the U.S. be screened. That passed Tuesday.

Then it was a hike in the minimum wage to $7.25 — a big difference from today's $5.15, said Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ).

"This is the day for the people who empty the bed pans, change the bed linens, sweep the floors and do the hardest work of America," Andrews said.

Thursday was the congressional version of a rerun: Legislation allowing federal funding for embyonic stem-cell research passed the House. When it passed Congress before, it was vetoed by President Bush. This week he promised to veto it again.

Bill number four came Friday and drew the sharpest debate. It would require the government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for cheaper Medicare drug prices.

Rep. Steve Kagan (D-WI), a doctor himself, said right now drug companies aren't playing fair.

"Today in America the real price of a pill is whatever they can get," he said of the drug firms.

But many Republicans were adamant that the Medicare prescription drug program is working just fine. In the words of Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

And Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA), also a doctor, called the bill "government price controls," adding "we need to kill this sucker dead."

In the end though, the Democrats' bill passed the House, drawing President Bush's second veto threat of the week.

All four of these bills are now shuttled over to the Senate, where no bills passed in this first full week. That's not unusual. The Senate is sort of the calm sibling to the House's more frenzied temperament. And the Senate did work on its own revamp of ethics rules this week.

What was going on in Senate committees, on the other hand, was anything but calm. After the president's Wednesday night speech outlining what he called a new strategy for the war in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were dispatched to sell the plan, which includes a hike in troop numbers and a new focus on holding down violence in Bagdhad.

It was no easy sell though, especially for Rice, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Democrats were dour, and even Republicans were skeptical.

Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, who may throw his hat into the ring for the Republican presidential nomination, called this kind of policy "very very dangerous," adding:

"Matter of fact, I have to say, Madame Secretary, that I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out. I will resist it."

Hagel and others dubbed the president's plan an "escalation" of the war. That's a heavy, Vietnam-era term that Rice did not accept. She told Hagel, "escalation" isn't just a matter of putting more troops on the ground.

"Escalation" is also a question of are you changing the strategic goal of what you're trying to do?" she said.

"Would you call it a decrease in billions of dollars more that you need for it?" Hagel asked.

"I would call it, Senator, an augmentation that allows the Iraqis to deal with this very serious problem that they have in Baghdad," Rice countered.

So in the end the Senate stole the House's thunder this week. Rather than a Democratic winning streak, the focus in Washington was on whether the president can break what many think is his losing streak, in Iraq.

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