Democrats Set Sights High for New Agenda

Posted January 7, 2009 at 6:19pm

Senate Democrats released a wish list of legislative priorities for the 111th Congress on Wednesday, focused primarily on boosting the lagging economy.

But as party leaders stressed the urgency in assisting the middle class and fixing the economy, none offered a timeline for the ambitious list of goals that includes health care reform, energy independence, an immigration overhaul and a fix for the housing crisis.

“We are confronting some of the most severe problems we have faced in generations,” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement. “They didn’t happen overnight and they won’t be solved in a day, but by working together in a bipartisan fashion, Democrats know we can move our country forward.”

Senate Democrats are calling for a doubling of the child tax credit to offer relief to working and single-parent families. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who sponsored a middle-class tax relief bill last year, said the Senate also will make college more affordable and encourage savings by expanding individual retirement account funds.

“We can’t do that immediately, but we’re going to prepare legislation for the future,” the New York Democrat said.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Democrats will look to take up measures designed to “restore accountability and oversight to the executive branch,” as well as to boost troop funding and veterans benefits. With actual legislation yet to be crafted, many of the agenda items released Wednesday will serve as placeholders for the upcoming year.

The Democratic majority faces a strenuous schedule in the coming weeks that will include approving a multibillion-dollar economic stimulus package being pushed by the Obama administration.

But first, Reid said, the Senate will pass a series of bills left over from last year, including a public lands package and a bill to make it easier for women to sue over pay disparities based on gender. Democratic leaders also plan to move forward on an omnibus appropriations bill and a full reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program before taking on new priorities.

“It is time to make health care more affordable and more efficient for each and every American,” Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) said. “Our nation’s economy and the strength of our communities depend on an effective and responsive education system.”

Democrats framed the economy as their marquee issue for the upcoming session and echoed calls from President-elect Barack Obama for energy independence and job creation in the private sector. Leaders from both chambers met with the incoming president to discuss the stimulus package earlier this week, and Reid said on Wednesday that the Senate likely will vote on the package next month.

But Democrats weren’t the only ones trying to chart a path forward on Wednesday. As they were releasing their legislative priority list in the Capitol, Senate Republicans gathered at the Library of Congress for a retreat to plot strategy for the year ahead.

Though his party suffered major losses in the 2008 elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reminded colleagues that Democrats are still shy of a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority and will need Republican support on the floor.

“We may be 42 Members, but we represent 50 percent of the American people,” McConnell said, counting Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) among his ranks. A state board has declared Democrat Al Franken the winner in Coleman’s re-election race, but Coleman is contesting the recount results in court.

“We’re going to be respectable and loyal opposition,” McConnell said.