Can Dems bring any real change to Congress?

Democrats take control of Congress from President George W. Bush’s Republicans this week with lawmakers facing a crucial question: can they halt the partisan sniping long enough to get much done?

After a decade of mounting political battles, Democrats and Republicans vow to seek common ground on divisive matters such as a new strategy in the Iraq war, upgrading health care and revamping immigration laws when the 110th Congress convenes on Thursday.

Yet in the wake of the November 7 elections that saw Democrats win both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in 12 years, both sides are also certain to quickly resume jockeying for political position.

“House Democrats have complained for the last 12 years that they have been shut out of the legislative process,” said Paul Miller, a veteran Capitol Hill lobbyist. “I find it hard to believe that most Democrats are now going to let bygones be bygones. It may be payback time.”

Bush has expressed a desire to work with Democrats during his final two years in office.

“I know they’re not going to change their principles and I’m not going to change mine,” he said at a pre-holiday news conference. “But nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we can’t find common ground to get good legislation done.”


Democratic leaders insist they intend to be productive, not vindictive.

Yet armed with the subpoena power, they plan investigative hearings into much of the administration’s conduct during the past six years, such as whether it manipulated the facts to build early support for the Iraq war.

“I don’t expect to see much bipartisanship beyond the first month or so,” said Paul Light at New York University’s John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress.

“How long before cries of partisanship? I don’t know. You can have hot heads on either side,” said former Rep. Bob Walker, who served in the Republican leadership after his party won control of the House in 1994.

Several Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are already preparing 2008 presidential runs with competing agendas of their own.

And Republicans, long accused of being a rubber stamp for Bush, may break with the president on some fronts and oppose Democrats for their own political good.

“Republicans in Congress have to do historically what is best for them,” said Ethan Siegal of the Washington Exchange, a private firm that tracks Capitol Hill for institutional investors. “They have to make Democrats look as bad as Democrats made them look the past two years, and that means blocking legislation.”

Siegal said, “Democrats must decide whether they want just issues to run on going into next election or accomplishments. I think they will choose accomplishments and try to negotiate with Bush and moderate Republicans.”


During the first month, House Democrats plan to bring up for votes much of the legislative agenda that they campaigned on in 2006.

It includes measures to clean up how the House does business, cut federal student-loan interest rates and roll back some tax breaks for big oil companies.

Democrats have the votes to win House passage. But some of the bills are certain to run into trouble in the Senate where Republicans can raise procedural roadblocks.

Bush said he hopes to reach bipartisan agreements in such areas as education reform, reducing special-interest spending and raising the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade, although he said the increase should be coupled with tax and regulatory relief for small businesses.

Democrats intend to pass a bill that would only increase the minimum wage. They say that business has enjoyed plenty of regulatory and tax relief during Bush’s first six years in office.

© Reuters 2007