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House Passes a Number of Reforms in First 100 Hours of Session

January 18, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, the House Democrats’ first 100 hours, and what comes next. Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Today’s easy passage of the energy bill capped off a whirlwind two weeks for House Democrats. This afternoon, House Leader Nancy Pelosi celebrated their accomplishments.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), Speaker of the House: We have demonstrated that the Congress of the United States is not a place where good ideas and the optimism of the American people go to die. It is a place where issues that have relevance to the everyday lives of America’s working families will receive the respect and the change that they desire.

MARGARET WARNER: Adopted in the first 100 legislative hours were the items Democrats promised in their “Six for ’06″ campaign agenda.

They voted to: beef up cargo security and enact other recommendations of the 9/11 Commission; raise the federal minimum wage; loosen restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research; require the government to negotiate for lower Medicare drug prices; reduce interest rates on federal student loans; and cut subsidies and tax breaks for oil and gas companies. Earlier, the House adopted changes in its ethics and lobbying rules, as well.

For a look now at where this agenda is headed, I’m joined by Daphne Retter, who covers the Hill for Congressional Quarterly.

And, Daphne, welcome.

DAPHNE RETTER, Congressional Quarterly: Thanks for having me.

Majority rules

MARGARET WARNER: So they passed these six bills. Did they actually deliver on the substance of what was promised? Did they get through the measures undiluted?

DAPHNE RETTER: Sure, they did exactly what they said they were going to do. They passed the bills they wanted to pass, and they did it without changing them at all, which is exactly what has the Republicans very, very upset.

Because at the same time that they were saying, "We're going to get all these things done as soon as we get in," they were also saying, "We're going to change the tone of Congress, and it's going to be a nicer place to be, and we're going to work together and not focus on strategy to fight each other."

And, of course, once they got there, if they were going to deliver on both, that wasn't that possible. So to get it through fast, the Republicans didn't really get a say.

MARGARET WARNER: They didn't get to propose amendments, all of that?

DAPHNE RETTER: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Democrats seem to have held together, held their majority together on all these bills, but the Republicans had a harder time, right?

DAPHNE RETTER: That is right. And it's going to be a problem throughout. Because in the House, majority rules.

I mean, essentially there are exceptions and there are procedural things, but without exceptions, Democrats are going to be able to get almost anything they want. So, in some ways, when Republicans look at their own options and what their own goals are, if they want some successes, they're going to have to buy into what the Democrats say.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that what was behind -- I mean, there were quite significant Republican defections on some of the bills. In other words, they voted with the Democrats.

DAPHNE RETTER: That's true. I mean, the Republicans are going to pick -- they're going to have to -- you'll see the leadership, as time goes on, pick certain bills, and say, "Here's one where we just have to stick together if we're going to matter around here."

In order to do that, they're going to have to let their guys go on other bills, because these folks have to explain back home why they didn't support stem cell research, for example, which is an extremely popular proposal with voters and one that made a difference in the elections, people think.

The next step

MARGARET WARNER: So now the prospects in the Senate. Tell us about that. Let's start with -- are there any of these bills that look like they'll have a pretty easy time in the Senate?

DAPHNE RETTER: Sure. Versions of all of these bills will -- may have an easy time in the Senate. They'll probably have similar names and look completely different, and then you'll conference them.

So a minimum wage bill, for example, is likely to go through next week in the Senate. But it will -- in order to get through the Senate -- because it's much closer division -- it will include tax breaks for businesses that you have to sweeten things in the Senate to get them through.

It takes 60 votes, not 50, to get most bills through. And the Democrats don't have 60 votes. And so they're going to be compromising.

And they're also a lot slower, and as these bills kind of go through, they can either die out or they're going to find themselves getting changed quite a bit. So getting through the House was actually the easy part.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about the Medicare prescription drug bill requiring the government to actually negotiate with the drug companies over prices? What prospects does that have in the Senate?

DAPHNE RETTER: Like the other bills, parts of that bill have prospects in the Senate. Last I heard, I believe Max Baucus said that there were parts that he was going to go with, and I think he said he was going to make it optional rather than forcing negotiations with the government, give Medicare the choice to try to negotiate with prescription drug companies.

And so they're going to tend to sort of dilute things a little bit, soften things a little bit, so that Republicans will get on board with it.

Presidential veto power

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about presidential veto? He's threatened at least to veto stem cell research, correct?

DAPHNE RETTER: And also the Medicare bill.

MARGARET WARNER: And did the House -- does the House have the votes to override the veto?

DAPHNE RETTER: No, they don't think so. Stem cell -- you know, that is a bill that waivers. You know, you get a couple, and then you lose a couple, because this is -- it's a bill that-- it's a policy that is closely related to the abortion debate, and emotions run high. And every time you get somebody, you lose somebody.

So it's unclear. But it looks like they do not have -- they cannot overturn a veto. So far, President Bush has been very delicate about his choices on where to veto; in fact, he's only used his veto pen one time.

MARGARET WARNER: On stem cell.

DAPHNE RETTER: On stem cell. And he'll use it again on the same one, and they probably won't be able to defeat it. And the same may be true of the Medicare bill.

Ethics and lobbying reform

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, ethics and lobbying reform. The House, that was the very first thing they did, House Democrats. Now, what's happened in the Senate? It doesn't really affect the House, but it's still interesting.

DAPHNE RETTER: It's interesting. And the way that the Senate is doing it, it probably will affect the House, which may be unnecessary. And this is actually going down -- right now, there are a lot of negotiations that are happening.

But the House, what they did was they changed their own rules, majority rules, and now their rules are changed. That's how fast that happened.

The Senate decided to add in provisions that would change laws. And so now the whole thing will have to go through the House and conference, and then go to the president, when they could have separated that.

They could have said, "We're going to do a resolution that only applies for our own rules, and then we're going to try to go for the statutory stuff later or at the same time and see how that goes." Since it's all one thing, you know, anywhere it gets kinked up in the system, it could die.

MARGARET WARNER: But with the House rules that they did pass, just the pure rules, those changes, those would stand?

DAPHNE RETTER: Yes, yes. I mean, and so what the Senate could do is just do exactly what the House did, and they chose not to. But right now, it's a very tenuous situation, because Republicans and some Democrats want to add or want the opportunity to talk about an amendment that would allow the president to take out pieces of future budgets.

MARGARET WARNER: Line-item veto.

DAPHNE RETTER: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Daphne Retter, Congressional Quarterly, thank you.

DAPHNE RETTER: Thank you.