Changes…they are a-coming

Incoming Democratic leaders in the House are trying not to appear vindictive as they return to power after 12 years of Republican rule by not making too many petty rules or administrative changes during the transition.

Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi is even considering backing a rules change that would give staffers of defeated members two months’ severance pay while they look for new jobs — a benefit already extended to Senate staff.

But that’s not to say there won’t be changes. One symbolic move in the offing: banning smoking in the Speaker’s Lobby just off the House floor, one of the last semi-public refuges around Capitol Hill where lawmakers like Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the new minority leader, are able to light up.

Perhaps the biggest winners in the November elections will be the half-million residents of the District of Columbia. Even before the Democratic takeover of Capitol Hill, a deal was nearly done to give D.C. a voting representative in the House. As it is now, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, can participate in debates but cannot vote.

Long a pet issue for Democrats — who make up about 95 percent of the city electorate — the right-to-vote forces scored House GOP support this year by crafting a deal that would give D.C. a vote in exchange for also giving Utah — as red a state as any — another congressman, who would almost certainly be a Republican.

But the sticking point had been the GOP-controlled Senate, where sentiment was decidedly against the deal. With Democrats in charge of both chambers come January, it should be smooth sailing for the measure. While President Bush has said he would “study” the issue, insiders say the White House has no major objections.

Legal prescription-drug imports from Canada and other countries are likely to get a renewed push in the new Congress by Democrats who think manufacturers are gouging U.S. customers. But changing federal law to allow shipments for individual use still isn’t on the top 10 list for the new leaders. They’re more likely to focus on negotiating lower drug prices for Medicare patients enrolled in the new prescription-drug plan. Either change is strongly opposed by the drug industry and may face a veto from President Bush.

Ironically, a change in rules for over-the-counter drugs is prompting a surge in illegal drug imports.

New rules that require pharmacies to put many cold medicines and antihistamines behind the counter to stymie those who use some of their ingredients to manufacture methamphetamine have caused a dramatic decrease in domestic production of the illegal and highly addictive drug, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center’s new “drug threat assessment.”

But, into the void have stepped Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, which make the meth in Mexico, then smuggle it across the border. The Justice Department says these Mexico-based outfits are experienced and well-organized, and are taking over meth distribution in heartland communities in the Midwest and East. They’re also using the opportunity to introduce Mexican black tar and brown-powder heroin into these markets, the drug intel center says.

While the Army and Marines are stretched thin by their duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, the other services are looking to reduce the size of their forces. The Air Force, for instance, intends to cut its ranks by 40,000 in the next few years. That is bad news for many airmen and sailors who had hoped to make a career in uniform. So the Pentagon has come up with “Operation Blue to Green,” a program that lets Air Force and Navy personnel essentially transfer into the Army and remain on active duty. They’ll even get a $10,000 bonus if they do. So far, at least 260 have made the switch.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at hoffmanl(at) SHNS reporter Lee Bowman contributed.)