Bush, Democrats face legislative opportunities and obstacles

Although the new Democratic majority and White House are making cautious gestures toward each other following Tuesday’s elections, presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her caucus will open the 110th Congress with an aggressive agenda of legislative items designed to secure an upper hand in relations with President Bush.

Although the new Democratic majority and White House are making cautious gestures toward each other following Tuesday’s elections, presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her caucus will open the 110th Congress with an aggressive agenda of legislative items designed to secure an upper hand in relations with President Bush.

During the campaign, Pelosi announced her “100 Hour” agenda, filled with items that, though opposed by Bush, should attract near-universal approval from Democrats and could even win some Republican votes.

Bills to increase the minimum wage, fund embryonic stem-cell research, reduce interest rates on student loans and permit the government to negotiate drug prices under Medicare should pass the House easily, putting Bush in the position of resisting initiatives that have broad popular appeal.

Democrats also will push hard in the areas they believe helped them to prevail in the midterm elections, such as the war in Iraq.

The departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and appointment of former CIA Director Robert Gates could create cover for the administration to reconsider Iraq, but the president and his advisers remain ardently opposed to accelerating troop withdrawals, as many Democratic candidates advocated.

But Democrats will be able to exert unprecedented influence over the war through their new control of the purse strings.

House Democrats plan to wade into national-security issues beyond Iraq. Pelosi’s 100 Hours plan includes enacting the security and counterterrorism recommendations of the bipartisan 9-11 Commission.

Pelosi’s longer-term “Six for ’06” agenda, jointly crafted with the Senate Democratic leadership, will include spending the two years leading up to the presidential election focusing on security, jobs, education, energy, healthcare and public and private pension reform.

If the House under Pelosi can swiftly seize the agenda from the White House, Democrats could position themselves to compel the president to reach out to them on bigger issues.

And in the legislative arena, Bush and Pelosi are confronted by a plethora of challenges that will test whether they will be able to govern together.

At his press conference yesterday, the president said, “I told Congresswoman Pelosi that I look forward to working with her and her colleagues to find common ground in the next two years.

“The message yesterday was clear. The American people want their leaders in Washington to set aside partisan differences, conduct ourselves in an ethical [manner] and work together to address the challenges facing our nation.”

Pelosi similarly told reporters yesterday that she had told the president she “wanted to work with him and the Republicans in Congress in a bipartisan way.”

If the two camps are to negotiate on substantive initiatives during the 110th Congress, they will have to overcome a history of bitter relationships and a nasty political campaign.

The White House has rarely engaged House Democrats since Bush took office, depending instead on the House Republican leadership to deliver unified votes on administration priorities.

A House, and possibly Senate, controlled by Democrats will certainly put a damper on the president’s agenda. Democrats in both chambers can be expected to push their own issues and obstruct the White House’s.

For example, the president has enjoyed a high degree of success in his efforts to cut taxes, but his streak could come to an end under a Democratic majority. Democrats plan to roll back or allow some of the Bush tax cuts to expire, which they see as a way of helping to pay for new spending and new tax credits.

As Bush noted yesterday, however, some tax-cut legislation passed in the past six years did so with Democratic support.

President Bush in his final two years in office will need to choose between fighting congressional Democrats and changing his policies so he can strike deals with them.

Yesterday, he cited his experience with Democratic legislators as governor of Texas and signaled that he was willing to bury the hatchet with Democratic leaders in Congress.

“If you hold grudges in this line of work, you’re never going to get anything done,” he said.

A handful of legislative items pending on the congressional calendar could bring the administration and congressional Democrats together.

As in the early days of his administration, Bush could work closely with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). The No Child Left Behind Act, which they constructed together, is up for reauthorization next year.

The State Children’s Health Insurance Program must also be reauthorized. This program, funded with block grants to states, was created during the Clinton administration with broad bipartisan support in both chambers.

The president even proclaimed yesterday that his immigration reform plan, which includes a guest-worker program and mechanisms to allow some illegal aliens to naturalize, might fare better under a Democratic Congress. The Senate passed a bill supported by the president, but House Republicans rejected it, with many adamantly opposing any proposals to permit illegal immigrants to become citizens.

The executive and legislative branches could use divided government as an opportunity to tackle more elusive problems.

President Bush and senior aides have repeatedly, and ambitiously, identified entitlement and tax reform as high priorities for 2007. In the lead-up to the midterm election, senior House Democrats such as Ways and Means Committee chairman-to-be Charles Rangel (N.Y.) made similar overtures.

This summer, Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman said the administration would return to entitlements and taxes in earnest following the elections. Senior Democrats on the House and Senate budget committees,  Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Rep. John Spratt (S.C.), responded by saying Congress, not the administration, must drive those efforts.

The administration could also try to revive its proposal for a bipartisan commission to study entitlement reform, which met with scant interest after Bush announced it in last year’s State of the Union address.

The most challenging issue could be Social Security. Bush pushed hard last year to sell his reform plan to Congress and the public but its private investment accounts generated vehement opposition from Democrats and little enthusiasm from the GOP rank and file.