WASHINGTON – Democratic leaders in Congress plan to delay consideration of a number of expensive campaign promises, including proposals to reform the nation’s health care system and fund a strategy to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, instead placing top priority on attempts to spark the staggering economy.
After moving quickly with an economic stimulus plan that includes cutting middle-class taxes, Democrats said they will open the 111th Congress with less-ambitious agenda items that have been blocked repeatedly by the Bush administration, such as lifting a ban on federal funding for stem cell research.
“Obviously, we’re not going to do health care in the first month or two,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said Friday.
Hoyer also cited energy independence and an overhaul of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation as issues that would have to wait until later in the year, if not the next, as leaders seek to build broad consensus on the more controversial issues.
Instead, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi intends to chart a course that will first deal with smaller pieces of legislation that already enjoy some bipartisan support and should be able to pass quickly.
“Some will be discrete pieces. Some will be comprehensive. The comprehensive pieces will take longer,” Pelosi told reporters last week.
The “discrete” items should allow Democrats to record some early victories as they prepare for the bigger battles ahead, and they hope a constructive relationship with an Obama administration – one leaders say was made stronger with the appointment of Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., as White House chief of staff – will make their task easier.
In particular, increased funding for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program has been a favored cause for Emanuel, who spoke with Hoyer and other congressional leaders late in the week about their agenda for next year. Bush vetoed a proposed $35 billion expansion of that program.
Democrats view increased funding for embryonic stem cell research, which had 63 votes in the Senate last year, as another issue they should be able to pass quickly. They also hope to pass most of the appropriations bills that fund the federal government before an early March deadline.
While these issues might not excite the party’s core supporters, Pelosi, Hoyer and Emanuel want to avoid the mistakes of the Clinton White House, aides said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who hopes to return to Congress in January after undergoing brain surgery in June, has been laying the groundwork for comprehensive national health care legislation. Kennedy plans an exhaustive round of hearings and legislative markups to ensure that the process for moving the bill will be in stark contrast to the secretive task force that helped cast suspicion on the failed health-care legislation pushed early in the Clinton administration.
But Democrats in Congress are not unanimously supportive of some of the big-ticket agenda items. Many fiscal conservatives in the party are concerned about how such large undertakings would be paid for, given the record $455 billion deficit for the fiscal year that ended in September. A variety of independent experts say the deficit this year could easily hit $1 trillion, which, at 7 percent of the gross domestic product, would be the largest one-year shortfall since 1946.