Leader Blues

Monday, January 08, 2007

TOP STORY >>Delegation upbeat on agenda in Congress

IN SHORT: Democrats say they’re ready to press ahead with plan to help middle class.

Leader staff writer

In the first hour of the first day of Democratic control of Congress in more than a decade, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) presided over the U.S. Senate Thursday morning, and he expects to do it again.

He was substituting for new Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“It was great,” Pryor told The Leader. “You need a referee on the floor.”

With Democrats in control of both the U.S. House of Represent-atives and the Senate for the first time in 12 years, the Arkansas congressional delegation is talking bipartisan, cooperative change, not the partisan, revolutionary change instituted by the Republican sweep in 1994.

“We heard the message on election day,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). “It was intended for us also. Citizens want some production out of their elected officials with (positive) consequences for their families.

“We can’t do it by ourselves. We need a bipartisan atmosphere and effort. If we have the will to do this we can,” Lincoln told The Leader.

Lincoln said it remained to be seen whether President Bush is sincerely offering bipartisan cooperation or if he just wants Democrats to go along with his agenda.

“The proof will be in his action,” said Lincoln.
What’s the mood in the House of Representatives? “First there is excitement and a recognition of history being made with Nancy Pelosi becoming the first female speaker of the house,” according to Cong. Vic Snyder. “Second, our country has real challenges ahead of us, not simple challenges.”

Snyder said there was “a great dissatisfaction on behalf of the American people” on the pace and progress in Iraq, and on issues like health care reform and energy.

“There is a lack of confidence in the functioning of government as demonstrated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina,” he said.
“There is no giddiness,” he said. “But resolve to try hard to do better than the Republicans did under (Speaker Dennis) Hastert and (former Majority Leader Tom) Delay. The country deserves better.”

“The Democratic controlled 110th Congress will focus on meaningful legislation that will improve people’s lives,” said Pryor.  “I am very pleased that the Senate Democratic leadership has committed to the principles of bipartisanship, transparency, and getting things done.”

Pryor cited a long list of concerns he will focus on, including expanding G.I. Bill benefits, estate tax reform, helping small communities with infrastructure by issuing bonds, protecting food safety, reforming fuel economy standards, extending childcare tax credits for working families.Lincoln said Senate Democrats were interested in many of the same issues as those in the House.

“I think Medicare prescription drug reform, an increase in the minimum wage, energy reform and helping families with the financial burden of college tuition were among the changes attractive to Democrats and some Republicans in both houses.”
She would like to reduce the number of Americans without health insurance by focusing on solutions for small business and the self-employed, who account for the largest portion of those uninsured.

“This is an historical time,” said Lincoln, with a woman speaker (Nancy Pelosi) elected speaker of the House for the first time in history and a record number of female senators—16—elected to serve.

In the House, Pelosi promised fast action on a number of issues in the first 100 hours in session.

On the short list was cutting off gifts from lobbyists, making the passage of laws fair and transparent, reining in the national debt, implementing all 9/11 Commission security recommendations, increasing the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, funding stem-cell research, enabling negotiation for lower prescription drug prices in the Medicare program, cutting interest on federal student loans, cutting off oil company subsidies and investing in safe alternatives.

Democrat Snyder, who represents the Second District, said he agreed with the items Pelosi wants to address in the 100 hours, but that he’s not in a rush.

“I appreciate her resolve in getting these bill passed through the House, but I want us to do it right. If it takes more than 100 hours, that’s fine with me, and I think it will be fine with the people of Arkansas,” Snyder said.

For instance, he said he had just gotten the text of the lengthy 9-11 Commission report.
Lincoln said that action in the Senate would be slower, more deliberate. She said that traditionally, the House acted with passion, the Senate with restraint and the difference worked out in committee.

Lincoln said that even with Sen. Tim Johnson still in critical condition from a brain aneurism, Democrats held a 50-49-vote advantage, leaving them for now in control of the Senate.

Snyder, who will be chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, said he would focus on the “end strength” of the Army and Marine Corp, which are being stretched to their limits, work on paying for armed services health care, the G.I. bill and military recruiting.

Snyder said he was wary of putting more troops into Iraq, especially in light of the opposition of Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command, who is being replaced.

Snyder said he looked forward to hearing testimony on the issue, and the opportunity to ask questions.
“What’s going to be different if there are more troops?” he asked. “What would their job be? How long will they be there?”
Snyder added that in previous years, the Republican dominated congress had done “an abysmal job of oversight,” with hearings few and far between.

First Dist. Cong. Marion Berry was appointed to the senior whip team for the 110th Congress. This appointment comes just weeks after Democratic leaders asked Berry to serve as vice chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.
“I am pleased the Democratic leadership chose an Arkansas moderate to play such a key role in shaping policy,” said Berry. 

As a senior whip, Berry will meet with other senior members and opinion leaders to discuss long-range policy goals and issues facing Congress.

The team will think strategically about how an issue impacts certain members or groups and develop strategies to ensure legislative success for policy goals.

Berry will continue to serve on the exclusive House Appropriations Committee. He was reappointed to the Energy and Water and Homeland Se-curity subcommittees, and received a new appointment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Berry will help write all of the spending bills for the coming Congress.

 In addition to his committee responsibilities, Berry says he will continue his work to improve health care, strengthen agriculture, and restore fiscal discipline to Congress.

As a trusted adviser in these areas, Berry is already working with his colleagues in the Democratic leadership to pass legislation in the first 100 hours to reform the Medicare prescription drug benefit, expand alternative fuels and prevent Congress from passing any legislation without a clear plan for how to fund new programs.  

“My sense is, we don’t feel like we have a mandate to come in with a big left-wing agenda,” Pryor said. “Our agenda is to get things done, be much more bipartisan, be more open and clean things up in Washington.”

Pryor said senators held a joint caucus in the historic old Senate chambers where the compromise of 1820 was hammered out. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid talked about being bipartisan and getting back to basics.

Most Republicans recognize that partisanship has gotten out of control, Pryor said. Last Congress was a do-nothing Congress that couldn’t even pass a budget, he said.

“We certainly want to meet the president half way,” said Pryor, “but his track record as a president working with Congress is not very good.”

He said the president might cooperate to polish his legacy, which currently is the underfunded No-Child-Left-Behind initiative and the failed Iraq policy.