Clock Starts Ticking on Democrats' 100 Hours
After a dozen years in the minority, Democrats are preparing to wield power on Capitol Hill by moving through an ambitious agenda in the House, but many are waiting to see exactly what they will be able to accomplish with a Republican in the White House and the barest of majorities in the Senate.
In the House, the party's 100-hour agenda awaits action. In the Senate, the party's wish list isn't as ambitious, but Democrats will still be in charge of the legislative calendar.
A veteran Democratic lawmaker who recalls the last time his party was in charge warns against complacency or, worse, arrogance.
When Rep. Maurice Hinchey first came to Congress in January 1993 from the middle Hudson Valley, he could sense that he was part of a languishing majority without purpose, even though fellow Democrat Bill Clinton had just won the presidency.
"There was this sense of overconfidence because of the fact that there was now a Democratic president," says Hinchey. "They didn't have a particular agenda. I remember going to that first whip meeting and finding how seemingly disorganized they were."
Their disorganization became apparent just two years later, when Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" helped sweep the GOP into the majority. Hinchey and his party have been on the legislative sidelines ever since.
Yet even with a Republican president, Hinchey says he is much more positive this time around.
"There's a definite, specific agenda," he says. "There's a sense of resolution."
Tom Kahn, who last year was the minority staff director of the House Budget Committee and is the now the majority, is predicting fast action on some items, especially ethics reform.
"That's why we came to Washington: to make laws," says Kahn. "It's very, very exciting."
Other items in the House's 100-hour agenda include:
- making a commitment to budgets that don't increase the deficit
- raising the minimum wage
- making healthcare more affordable
- cutting interest rates on student loans
- rolling back oil industry subsidies
- opposing Social Security privatization
On the issue of the budget, President Bush extended an olive branch of sorts to Democrats in an opinion piece in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, lauding the party's congressional leaders for their commitment to end last-minute earmarking that bloats spending bills. Kahn says he expects the earmark reform to pass easily.
But in the same opinion piece, the president stood fast for his tax policies, which many Democrats, including Hinchey, say must be revisited. While agreeing that certain markers of the economy like the stock market are doing well, Hinchey says that "there's a lack of equitability in the sharing" of those advances.
Hinchey and Kahn and other Democrats are in Washington mainly to influence legislation, but the other perks of the majority were not lost on at least one Democratic Hill staffer.
"My office was in the basement without a window," said the staffer. "It was dingy and dark, and now I've moved [upstairs] with huge windows. You feel like it's a deliverance."