Everything new is old again

The new Congress, which convenes Thursday, seemed off to a promising start when last month a bipartisan group of Senate and House lawmakers representing a broad political spectrum began quietly working on what seems like a workable compromise on an immigration bill.

Now, hold that thought.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised 100 hours of action on a range of measures — ethics and lobbying reform, tightening the budget process, federal funding of stem cell research.

And before President Bush makes his State of the Union address Jan. 23, Democrats hope to cut interest rates of student loans, allow the government to negotiate drug prices and implement the recommendation of the 9/11 commission.

All very ambitious but it poses a dilemma for the Democrats. They are torn between getting off to a fast and flashy start, as they promised, and cooperating in bipartisan fashion with the Republicans, as they also promised.

To enact the 100 hours agenda, they may well have to resort to the same heavy-handed, dictatorial tactics of the now discredited Republican House leadership — shutting minority members out of bill drafting sessions and prohibiting them from offering amendments and alternative measures — tactics that the Democrats disavowed last fall.

With a 16-vote majority, Pelosi has the votes to do it. The question is: What kind of good start does she want to get off to? Humiliating the Republicans at the outset — rather like the GOP did to the Democrats — could make for a long two years.

The situation is different in the Senate. There, the rules make compromise essential and, with only a 51-49 majority, Democratic leader Harry Reid has little choice.

Some of the 100 hours measures are non-controversial and some of them — minimum wage and stem cell research — passed in the Republican-run House only to die with the expiration of the old Congress.

But others — like reforming lawmakers’ personal pork projects and requiring budget offsets for new spending and tax cuts — will be more difficult and will be a test of the new leadership.

Pelosi has shown herself to be combative even within her own party and another legislative variable is that almost two-thirds of House Democrats have never served when their party was a majority.

The next month should be very instructive. Whether it will be productive is another matter entirely.