As the 110th Congress begins, Democrats hope to use their newly won majority in the House and Senate to push for quick approval of a set of bills that include a boost in the federal minimum wage and an energy policy shift away from benefits for the oil and natural gas industries and towards renewable energy and conservation.
On the second day of the session, House Democrats won approval of a set of ethics changes including a requirement for greater disclosure of narrowly focused legislative "earmarks." Under the provision, approved Jan. 5 by a 280-152 vote, congressional sponsors of earmarks would have to be identified and declare that they have no financial interest in that provision.
The ethics provision is part of a package of House rules, whose approval launched Democrats' drive to approve a half-dozen other measures in the session's first 100 hours of legislative action. New Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) says that 100 hours of legislative work will stretch over about two calendar weeks.
First of the Democrats' bills—the "6 for '06" plan they campaigned on last year--will be a Jan. 9 vote on a measure to implement recommendations of the 9/11 commission, followed by action the next day on legislation to hike the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour, from $5.15 now.
Later that week, the chamber is to consider bills dealing with stem cell research and allowing the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices under the Medicare program.
Slated for the week of Jan. 17 are House votes on bills to trim interest rates on federal student loans and energy policy.
In the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 51-49 edge, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says his party will begin with an ethics bill that includes restrictions on gifts and travel paid for by lobbyists, as well as earmark policy changes.
A bill to raise the minimum wage would be among the next priorities. Reid said Jan. 5 Democrats would consider coupling the wage hike with tax breaks for small companies if it would enhance the measure's chances. "If it takes adding small-business tax cuts to have a minimum wage increase, we're going to do that," he said.
Also on Senate Democrats' agenda are other items on their House counterparts' list: the 9/11 panel's recommendations, stem cell research, energy policy and student loans.
The Senate Democrats have added some items to the House program, including a broad-based immigration measure, which Reid said would include a provision to let illegal immigrants already in the U.S. have a way to become citizens. Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) says, "I think prospects are good" for passing immigration legislation during this Congress.