Democrats Take Control of Congress: Politics As Usual or New Era of Bipartisanship?

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), left, will be the new Speaker of the House. Democrats are skeptical of President Bush's pledge of cooperation. (Photos courtesy
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), left, will be the new Speaker of the House. Democrats are skeptical of President Bush's pledge of cooperation. (Photos courtesy

by Jake Tapper, ABC News

Today, amid fanfare and photo ops, members of the new Democrat-controlled Congress will take their oaths of office.

But beneath all the lofty talk of bipartisanship and cooperation lurks skepticism and suspicion.

Democrats have laid out an ambitious agenda for their first 100 hours of legislation, beginning Tuesday, including:

  • cutting interest rates for student loans from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent
  • passing the remaining 9/11 Commission recommendations
  • increasing the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour
  • allowing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research

In the summer, President Bush vetoed stem cell research.

But Democrats will not allow Republicans to offer competing bills in their first 100 hours, so Republicans say bipartisanship has already been discarded.

"It's a very poor policy avenue to pursue to say 'We will only listen to you after we have done what we want to do,'" said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla. "Their agenda is not like a gallon of milk. It won't expire in 100 hours."

Democrats say that Republicans will be permitted more opportunities to introduce competing legislation than they were afforded under GOP rule. Moreover, they say the initial agenda items being introduced in the first 100 hours were ones thoroughly vetted before the public.

"I think it's not accurate to say that this is not a very fair and open process," Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told ABC News. "Very rarely are the six items that we're going to move discussed as openly and as extensively as these items have been discussed."

As to the lack of GOP alternatives, Hoyer said, "We think that they offered their alternatives in the election. Their alternatives in many respects were 'No.'"

Helping fuel the GOP complaint that the "100 Hours" plan is contrived is the fact that Democrats appeared confused as to when the "100 hours" were set to begin.

Initial reports from the office of incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had the "100 hours" beginning today, as Democrats voted on a package for ethics reform, and continuing to Friday, when they are set to introduce rules on reforming congressional earmarks -- the spending projects often slipped surreptitiously into larger spending bills.

On Wednesday evening, however, Hoyer's office said that the "100 Hours" plan would actually begin Tuesday with implementing outstanding recommendations by the 9/11 Commission.

Democrats are skeptical of Bush's pledge of cooperation, too.

"Anyone whose view of bipartisanship is 'Do what I want' isn't being bipartisan," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "In the past, the president has had some of that view, but let's hope he read the election signals the same way we did: The public is demanding real bipartisanship."

Warning: Gridlock Ahead

Experts are skeptical as well.

"I don't expect great legislative achievements in this Congress," said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.

Mann said he anticipated more civility under Democratic rule, but not more compromise.

"The public's looking for a different posture, a different attitude, and Democrats would like to deliver on that," he said.

"On the other hand, they have no intention of rolling over to the president on substantive matters. So what you're going to find is efforts at comity but profound disagreements on policy," Mann said.

Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said, "Let's face it, there's a dynamic in the political arena that's going to make serious, sustained bipartisan cooperation very, very tricky to pull off. We'll see it episodically but in a more sustained way. No matter what they're saying these days, there's a lot to suggest it'll be very hard to do."

Whatever the Democrats' agenda, other issues -- such as the war in Iraq -- have a way of intruding, as happened to House Democratic leaders when anti-war protesters drowned them out Wednesday afternoon.

It seemed in no small way a metaphor for the larger issue not included in the Democrats' "100 Hour" agenda -- the war in Iraq.

Other issues not on any official game plan also have a way of seizing the agenda. For instance, one House Democrat will revive legislation to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili said this week that he agreed, having seen progress for gays and lesbian in the military, and a military stretched too thin.

Democratic leaders are going to try to keep such controversial topics as gays, abortion and guns out of the legislative arena. They don't want to alienate any moderate voters as we go into the 2008 presidential election season.

Z. Byron Wolf, Kendall Evans and Mike Noble contributed to this report.

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