Dems to push Obama's goals with bills in Congress

June 6, 2008 7:25:49 PM PDT
Between now and Election Day, Democrats say they will use Congress to showcase the kinds of change promised by their presidential candidate, Barack Obama. Some legislation they'll choose has good prospects of passage - policy blueprints for higher education and the military; a ban on lead in toys - and skip over debates on spending plans and some taxes until a new president takes office.

Other bills they'll debate are doomed. But on those, the point isn't passage this year. It's about making the case that the Democrats' plan for children's health care, for example, won't become law without one of their own in the White House.

Whatever legislation Democrats offer, it will have been vetted for the benefit of the Obama campaign as is traditional between the congressional majority and its presidential candidate.

"Now that the primaries have come to a close, we relish the opportunity to compare agendas," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate Democrats' chief fundraiser. "It's going to sharpen the focus in the Congress and the Senate. It's going to sharpen the focus in the presidential race."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, too, indicated that the House agenda would be synchronized with Obama's in the run-up to drafting a party platform.

She told reporters this week that the document would reflect the Democrats' focus on heath care, global warming, national security and the economy.

"I'm sure we'll be sitting down together to talk about how we can work together for a great Democratic victory in November," Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters who had asked her about Obama. "We'll obviously want to make it current as we go forward and be more illustrative of some of the initiatives we would put forward."

Still to be determined is whether Democrats are going to try to push through a legislative rescue for the mortgage crisis, or use the issue as a club against Republicans this fall.

In other ways, the floor schedule will reflect an effort by Democrats to put Republicans on record on economic issues. Pelosi next week is planning to bring up a bill to extend of unemployment benefits after new Labor Department statistics showed the biggest monthly jump in the jobless rate since 1986.

Democrats also are planning a new effort to revive the economy this fall, at the height of the campaign.

Congressional action as a campaign tool can cut both ways. Republicans like Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania have warned, for example, that blocking President Bush's judicial nominations was angering GOP senators and could trigger retaliation against a President Obama and his nominees.

Bush and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. struck an agreement this week to confirm a housing secretary and members of a congressionally funded think tank in what some observers predict could be the last Senate confirmations of Bush's tenure. As often happens toward the end of a president's term, such agreements get harder to negotiate. Republicans are accusing Democrats of trying to run out the clock.

Bills Democrats say they'll take up with good prospects for passage include: reauthorizations for higher education and the Pentagon, banning imported toys that contain lead, shielding middle-income taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax, extending some expiring tax breaks for businesses and preventing doctors from absorbing cuts in their Medicare payments.

Democrats also hope for a major boost in the GI Bill for veterans' college benefits, at a cost of more than $50 billion over the upcoming decade. Obama supports this, but Republican John McCain and the Pentagon oppose the bill because it would award the benefits after only three years of service. They fear it would encourage people to leave the service after only one enlistment during a war.

Already, the candidates have sparred over that one, with Obama and McCain accusing each other of playing politics with veterans issues.

Democrats also will bring up legislation that has drawn presidential vetoes. They'll flex muscle where they can, such as by overriding Bush's expected veto of a $290 billion farm bill.

They'll also bring up bills that don't have the two-thirds majority to override an expected veto from Bush - to drive home the issues for the election. Insuring children's health care, Democrats said, will be held up as Exhibit A of the types of Democratic policies unlikely to pass under a Republican president.

Democrats are making the same point with bills that aren't even getting that far. Republicans blocked a bill this past week to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, probably killing global warming legislation for the year. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., suggested the exercise produced a "road map" for next year's debate on the issue - under a new president.

Labor and trade bills, viable or not, are favorite vehicles for Democrats to energize their base of union workers. Democrats in both chambers are introducing bills that would basically bring the nation's free-trade agreements to a halt, a move pushed by labor unions. McCain backs free trade.

Other tough votes loom for McCain, such as on legislation that would extend unemployment benefits, make it easier for workers to sue for wage discrimination, and ban workplace discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals.