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Democrats Set to Unveil Agenda

Preparing to return the House to regular order after an initial legislative sprint full of popular bills and closed rules, Democratic leaders said Tuesday they are finally primed to roll out a long-term agenda.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) confirmed Tuesday that Democrats will unveil their new agenda next week, although he declined to provide specific details.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said the plan will not be an itemized blueprint, but rather would feature “guideposts” and serve as a broad outline of the goals the new majority hopes to complete over the next six months.

While Hoyer stated at a weekly press briefing the House will address health care and education bills in coming weeks — specifically mental health parity, the No Child Left Behind Act and re-authorization of the Head Start pre-kindergarten program — in a later interview he would not discuss which topics will take precedent under the new agenda, asserting that House committees must first be allowed to act on the measures.

“Obviously the committees are working,” Hoyer said. “We just don’t know how fast.”

Democratic leadership sources suggested, however, that the plan will target broad topics such as environmental protections and health care initiatives that eventually will be translated into bills focused on clean water and spinal injuries, as well as efforts to address the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

While Democrats spent their initial weeks in the House majority focused on their “100 hours” agenda — which included a half-dozen bills that Democrats touted during the 2006 campaign cycle — party leaders subsequently gave little indication about what issues would take precedence on House floor aside from must-do legislation, such as the federal budget and appropriations bills.

In the immediate future, the House is scheduled to debate a resolution next week condemning President Bush’s proposal to increase troop levels in Iraq. (See story, p. 1.)

While Democratic sources acknowledged the lull prompted some minor grumbling among Members, Republicans more openly criticized the perceived standstill.

“They didn’t have a plan. As the saying goes, when you fail to plan you plan to fail,” said one GOP leadership aide, who asserted the Democrats’ start paled in comparison to how Republicans began their majority in 1995, when the GOP pushed through the “Contract with America.”

“They really haven’t delivered much more than a few sound bites when you take a look at the legislation,” added the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But Democrats defended their control of the chamber, noting that in addition to completing their initial agenda, House lawmakers dealt with a continuing resolution to fund the federal government for the duration of fiscal 2007, a necessity given that the Republican-controlled 109th Congress did not complete work on those spending bills.

“It’s important to remember that under normal schedule it would only be our second week here,” Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey Bernards said Monday, referring to the fact that recent House sessions have begun in mid-January and typically have not produced significant legislation. “Committees are just now gearing up.”

A Democratic leadership aide, who asked not to be identified, echoed that argument.

“We got a massive amount done in January and now we’re formulating the agenda for the rest of the year,” the aide said Tuesday, adding: “Just because we haven’t put [our goals] in a one-pager and called them something doesn’t mean we don’t have a weighty agenda in the coming months.”

Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) also cited Democrats’ vow to move legislation through the chamber’s regular order, particularly the committee process of hearings and markups.

“The Republicans say, ‘Why isn’t anything on the floor?’ The answer is we don’t want to bypass the committees,” Frank said. Among the first items his panel will send to the House floor are bills including terrorism risk insurance and executive compensation.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), who chairs the centrist New Democrat Coalition, also noted that the new majority hopes to eschew the “truncated process” that many Democrats perceived under the then-Republican majority.

“I think we will not be reactive like the former majority was, where you saw a lot of social agenda, a lot of divisive agenda coming forward because something happened out in the real world that caused people to say, ‘That’s something that’s driving our base,’” Tauscher said. “Regular order is a very important thing for us to do. It’s also how you get bipartisan support on legislation.”

One Democratic operative, who asked not to be named, said the slow development of an agenda also could be attributed to a learning curve for the new majority.

“It’s going to take some time to work out which parts of the system we’ve had for 12 years stay and which get thrown out,” the operative said.

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