Democrats pledge action on ethics, Iraq

Thursday, January 4, 2007

President Bush said he would soon propose a five-year plan to balance the budget.

WASHINGTON -- Congressional Democrats stepped hungrily to the brink of power Wednesday, promising immediate action to limit the influence of lobbyists and constant prodding of the Bush administration to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq.

President Bush pushed back against the political opposition as he contemplated divided government for the first time since entering the White House. He said he would soon propose a five-year plan to balance the budget, and he challenged Democrats to avoid passing "bills that are simply political" statements.

"There is nothing political about finding a policy to end the war in Iraq, raising the minimum wage, achieving energy independence or helping kids afford college," shot back Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, due to become majority leader at the stroke of noon today. "In fact, politics has prevented progress on these issues for too many years."

Facing resistance

Even as they prepared to take control of Congress, Democrats received a brusque reminder that they face pressure from the political left as well as resistance from Republicans.

At one point during the day, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a member of the Democratic leadership, was addressing reporters when he was loudly interrupted by Cindy Sheehan and other anti-war activists. "De-escalate, investigate, troops home now!" they shouted, while he smiled gamely.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, in line to become the nation's first female House speaker, spent much of her day at ceremonial events. She attended a Catholic Mass in remembrance of the children of Darfur and Katrina, then a tea in her honor.

That left it to her lieutenants to outline plans for the Democrats' initial stretch in the majority.

Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the incoming majority leader, said the first six bills and a series of stiffer ethics rules would be passed within two weeks.

The first step, he said, would take place by early evening today, and consist of several measures crafted in response to the scandals that weakened Republicans in last fall's elections.

Greater disclosure

In addition to expanding restrictions on privately financed trips enjoyed by lawmakers, House Democrats said they will prohibit travel on corporate jets and require greater disclosure of earmarks, the pet projects inserted into legislation at the behest of individual lawmakers.

The rules do not prohibit lawmakers from taking trips financed by foundations that seek to influence public opinion. Those trips will require pre-approval from the ethics committee.

Current rules ban congressional travel paid for by lobbyists or foreign governments, and violations of the existing restrictions played heavily in the scandal involving Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Democrats appeared to backtrack from their campaign-season pledge in at least one area. They were sharply critical last year of Republicans for keeping a roll call vote open for hours so leaders could find enough votes to pass Medicare legislation. But rather than ban the practice, the proposed new rule declares that a vote "shall not be held open for the sole purpose of reversing the outcome."

Two months after the voters ordered a change in congressional control, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, as well as Bush, pledged to work in a bipartisan spirit.

"Democrats are committed to working with Republicans to get results," Reid wrote in a memo distributed to the party's rank-and-file. He said an unprecedented all-senators meeting set for Wednesday morning would "allow us to start off on the right foot, as colleagues instead of adversaries."

Those promises could scarcely obscure the political jockeying underway.

After long pledging a new era of civility and openness in the House, Democrats said they would not allow Republicans the chance to amend any of the first half-dozen bills to be brought to a vote during the first 100 hours of the new Congress. The measures relate to the minimum wage, stem cell research, energy, student loans and recommendations by the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of 2001.

"We view the first 100 hours as essentially a mandate from the American people," Hoyer told reporters, explaining the decision to safeguard those measures from Republican attack.

Republicans were quick to complain -- after spending years ignoring Democratic complaints along the same lines. Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., sent Democrats a letter saying they were violating promises Pelosi had made to allow a "fair debate consisting of a full amendment process that grants the minority the right to offer its alternatives, including a substitute."

More broadly, Republican leaders lined up to support Bush's call for a balanced budget by 2012 while protecting tax cuts passed while they held power.

"In February, the president will submit a budget to Congress that will grow the economy by making tax cuts for working families permanent, and I support those efforts," said Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the incoming Republican leader.

Bush said at the White House that his proposal "will restrain spending while setting priorities. It will address the most urgent needs of our nation, in particular the need to protect ourselves from radicals and terrorists, the need to win the war on terror, the need to maintain a strong national defense and the need to keep this economy growing by making tax relief permanent."

"We welcome the president's newfound commitment to a balanced budget, but his comments make us wary," said Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, the incoming Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee. "We will simply have to scrutinize the president's budget when it comes next month to see if the rhetoric matches reality."

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