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New U.S. Congress to Shape Domestic Policy


On Thursday, the 110th Congress of the United States will be sworn into office. Victor Morales leads a roundtable discussion on the domestic issues facing the new Congress and the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of American government.

MR. MORALES: Last November, President Bush's Republican Party lost majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress. But while the vote was largely seen as a referendum on America's involvement in Iraq, most analysts say Democrats must now tackle a broad range of domestic issues -- ranging from tax reform to health care -- and work with the White House.

Joining me to examine the relationship between the new Congress and the president are: David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union -- the nation's oldest and largest grassroots conservative political organization. And, Will Marshall -- president of the Progressive Policy Institute, which seeks to define and promote liberal politics here in the United States.

Will Marshall, let me begin with you. How strong will the Democrats be in promoting their domestic agenda?

MR. MARSHALL: Well, they're going to be very strong, Victor. They ran on raising the minimum wage and changes in the Medicare prescription drug benefit. There's no question in my mind that they're going to "come out of the box" [i.e., start work] pushing these items. But it's important to keep in mind that it's a very slim Democratic majority in Congress, in particular in the Senate.

MR. MORALES: Dave Keene, let me throw that same question to you. And is this going to be a slugfest [i.e., a period of intense partisan political battles] or can we expect some comraderie here?

MR. KEENE: I think that in the first couple of months, Democrats -- we're really talking mostly about the House [of Representatives] here, I think, because the Senate is the Senate and acts differently than the House under the best or worst circumstances [i.e., the Senate tends to act in a more reserved manner than the House]. But I think that [incoming House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi will have something of a honeymoon. There will be a number of things that they can get passed. And they [i.e., the Democrats] will do as the Republicans did when they were in [power] and discover that things aren't always as easy as you might have hoped they would be in a closely divided body. So you're not going to see major changes. You're going to see some victories for the Democrats and some things that don't happen and there will be changes on the margin.

MR. MORALES: Will Marshall?

MR. MARSHALL: That's true in the sense that there's only so much that a Democratic Congress with a narrow majority can accomplish with a Republican president in the White House. But I do think what happens is that the Democrats now have their own "bully pulpit" [i.e., an authoritative platform from which to speak] -- the Congress. It's a perch from which to begin to introduce the themes and ideas that they want to govern on in the next two years and that the Democratic candidates for president will want to run on in 2008. And, of course, they are in a position to completely block whatever is left of the Bush agenda. So I do think that something large has happened. But I agree with David in that you can't really seize control of a nation's agenda from Congress and govern from there, but you can certainly change the discussion.

MR. KEENE: I think Will is right about that. It was a significant victory for the Democrats. The problem is that with every election we have -- and this is true on both sides -- two things happen. The first is that politicians who lose never [think they] lost because of something they did; it was always someone else's fault. So Republicans are in denial on a lot of things. And the other thing that happens is that politicians who win always think that they won because the people voted for them for the reasons they wanted the people to vote for them. And what's usually the result is that the winners misread the results of the election and act as if things they hoped the voters wanted were things they actually wanted. And it's often not true. And I think it's likely to happen here.

MR. MORALES: Dave Keene, let me stay with you for just a moment. In your view, what are some of the social issues that we might expect the president to stress during his last two years in office?

MR. KEENE: I'm not sure the real action is going to be on social issues. Although the Democrats in the House [of Representatives] certainly will be pushing an attempt to take on the president in his opposition to stem cell research and federal funding of that research. But I don't think that most of the action is going to be on social issues; it's going to be on taxes, spending, economic issues and foreign policy questions.

MR. MORALES: Will Marshall?

MR. MARSHALL: I think that's exactly right. The Democrats will have a couple of themes that they stress: One is fiscal restraint. It's an odd inversion of roles in our times that the Democrats have become the party that comes in and restores fiscal discipline after a period of Republican governance. Democrats are already thinking about how to put budget controls back on that were lifted in the last decade that helped create an "anything goes" spending atmosphere in Washington. So they'll have to start to clean up the fiscal mess. They're going to make a big priority of energy reforms -- trying to move beyond where we've been the last six years -- and try to accelerate the pace by which the United States reduces its oil consumption and hastens into the marketplace new, clean technologies and fuels. So I think that will be a big emphasis for Democrats. And the general theme of economic fairness [will also be stressed]. There are a lot of folks who believe that the country has become more economically insecure and less economically equal in recent times. And so Democrats probably will start their first hundred hours agenda with a minimum wage increase and then we'll see where it goes from there.

MR. KEENE: The problem the Democrats face is in this talk about fiscal responsibility. The criticisms that they've made of the Bush administration involve massive new spending. The difference between the two parties is that the Democrats believe that the reason there's a deficit is because people are not paying enough in taxes. The Republicans believe the reason there's a deficit is that the government is spending too much money. The Republicans in the last few years joined in the spending binge and the Democratic criticism of it was that, "You're not spending enough, but that we can fix the deficit by raising taxes." And that's the fight on the domestic side that's going to take center stage over the course of the next couple of years.

MR. MORALES: We'll have to leave it there. I would like to thank my guests: Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, and David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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    Victor Morales

    Victor Morales is Senior Analyst for the Voice of America, where he has reported on U.S. and international affairs for more than two decades.  He is the former head of VOA’s Focus New Analysis Unit and VOA Learning English.  He also hosted the agency’s premier public affairs talk shows, Encounter and Press Conference, USA, and anchored the leading English news program, VOA News Now.

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