Wall Street Journal: Democrats Plot Series of Quick Legislative Victories


By NAFTALI BENDAVID

WASHINGTON — Democratic congressional leaders, eager to trumpet that change has come to Washington, are looking to enact quickly a series of popular bills in January in such areas as renewable energy, children’s health care and embryonic stem-cell research.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for stem-cell and children’s health bills after Election Day.

The top priority remains an economic stimulus package. But Democrats also want to tackle rapidly an array of bills they consider ‘low-hanging fruit.’ Those measures won considerable bipartisan support in the last Congress, but were vetoed, filibustered or otherwise blocked by the Republican White House and its allies in the Senate and House.

The goal is to send a message to voters that Democrats have delivered on the change they promised. Congress’s approval ratings have been at historic lows, and Democratic leaders are aware that if they do not show major achievements quickly, they risk losing a large number of seats in the next election.

‘The American people will judge us by how we govern,’ said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), part of the House leadership. ‘The first indicator, the first test, will be the 2010 midterm elections…. That will be the first time the American people get to express their opinion on the direction we are taking the country.’

Discussions are under way among Senate leaders, House leaders and the Obama transition team over how to package and time the Democrats’ first few initiatives.

Some measures, for example, could be inserted into sweeping economic, health and energy bills. But passing them as stand-alone measures could earn bigger headlines and political benefits.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman plans to introduce a measure requiring utilities to derive 15% of energy from renewable sources.

Meanwhile, Senate leaders are still learning where some of their new members stand on key issues. It has been years since Democrats have had to factor in the views of senators from places like Alaska, but the election of Mark Begich makes that a necessity.

‘One of the things that is being coordinated with leaders and committees, and with the transition folks, is which of the low-hanging fruit to do,’ said a Democratic leadership aide. ‘One of the questions is, ‘How do the Obama folks want to do this as part of their first 100 days?’ That is still being nailed down.’

Since the first term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, an administration’s first 100 days have taken on exaggerated importance in the public mind in setting the tone of a new administration. Given that, Democrats are debating how to roll out initiatives during the first three months.

Democrats also believe that a series of early wins would establish their power and make it easier to push through more controversial items later.

One candidate is a measure requiring that electric utilities derive 15% of their energy from renewable sources by the year 2020. The House passed such a bill in August 2007, and the Senate has passed similar bills three times, though not last year.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D., N.M.), who chairs the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, plans to introduce this Renewable Electricity Standard early on, though it’s not clear whether it would stand alone or be inserted into more sweeping stimulus or energy bills.

Advocates say they have gained four votes in the Senate, and possibly more, from the last election, and are confident of passage. ‘We are very optimistic,’ said Marchant Wentworth, legislative representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Equally central to Democrats’ efforts to depict themselves as forward-looking are an expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, and an increase in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP.

Both are popular measures, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cited them as top priorities in a press conference after Election Day.

Congress passed a bill to loosen federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research in 2006 and again in 2007. Many prominent Republicans, including former first lady Nancy Reagan, supported the measures, but President George W. Bush vetoed them.

Similarly, at the end of 2007, Mr. Bush twice vetoed a plan to expand SCHIP by $35 billion over five years, describing the proposal as a first step toward socialized medicine. The program’s funding expires at the end of March 2009, so Congress has to act by then.

With bigger Democratic majorities, these bills are likely to pass, and President-elect Barack Obama is expected to sign them. ‘There is a large degree of consensus to move quickly to demonstrate that change has come to Washington,’ Mr. Van Hollen said.

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