WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats stepped hungrily to the brink of power on Wednesday, promising immediate action to limit the influence of lobbyists and pledging to constantly prod the Bush administration to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq.
President Bush pushed back against the political opposition as he contemplated divided government for his final two years in the White House. He challenged Democrats to avoid passing “bills that are simply political” statements.
“There is nothing political about finding a policy to end the war in Iraq, raising the minimum wage, achieving energy independence or helping kids afford college,” shot back Sen. Harry Reid, of Nevada, due to become majority leader at the stroke of noon today.
Even as they prepared to take control of Congress, Democrats received a brusque reminder that they face pressure from the political left as well as resistance from Republicans.
At one point during the day, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a member of the Democratic leadership, was addressing reporters when he was loudly interrupted by Cindy Sheehan and other anti-war activists. “De-escalate, investigate, troops home now!” they shouted, while he smiled gamely.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, the incoming majority leader, said the first six bills and a series of stiffer ethics rules would be passed within two weeks.
The first step, he said, would take place by early evening, and consist of several measures crafted in response to the scandals that weakened Republicans in last fall’s elections.
In addition to expanding restrictions on privately financed trips enjoyed by lawmakers, House Democrats said they will prohibit travel on corporate jets and require greater disclosure of earmarks, the pet projects inserted into legislation at the behest of individual lawmakers.
The rules do not prohibit lawmakers from taking trips financed by foundations that seek to influence public opinion. Those trips will require pre-approval from the ethics committee. Current rules ban congressional travel paid for by lobbyists or foreign governments, and violations of the existing restrictions played heavily in the scandal involving Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Democrats appeared to backtrack from their campaign-season pledge in at least one area. They were sharply critical of Republicans for keeping a roll-call vote open for hours so leaders could find enough votes to pass Medicare legislation in late 2003. But rather than ban the practice, the proposed rule declares that a vote “shall not be held open for the sole purpose of reversing the outcome.”