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New US Congress Convenes Thursday

The U.S. Congress reconvenes Thursday with the new Democratic majority vowing to push ahead immediately with their legislative agenda. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill where Republicans, who are now the opposition, challenged Democratic leaders to adhere to pledges made during the November election.

With the House set to meet at noon Thursday, along with the Senate, key lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle spent Wednesday doing some political posturing, and setting the stage for the 110th Congress.

For Democrats, that meant reiterating what they call their 100-hour agenda, a push beginning next week to pass legislation on six key issues in the first two weeks or so of Congress.

First on the list, scheduled for next Tuesday, is legislation to enact all, or nearly all, of the recommendations of the independent commission that investigated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Democrats then intend to follow quickly with three other items: increasing the minimum wage for U.S. workers, loosening restrictions on funding for stem cell research, and allowing the government to negotiate with big pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices.

Next week, they will introduce legislation to reduce interest rates for student college loans, and a bill to end subsidies for large oil companies and provide stimulus for new investments in renewable energy.

Democratic leaders face questions about their decision to speed up passage by sending bills directly to the House floor, bypassing committees, and limiting Republican opportunities to offer amendments or alternative measures.

Republican Congressman Patrick McHenry calls that tactic dishonest, asserting it violates pledges Democrats made to voters during the congressional election campaign for a more open and civil atmosphere.

"One of the key tenets of the Democrat's strategy in the last election, a demand for honest, open, fair, bipartisan debate, will be stepped on," he said.

But House Majority Leader-elect Steny Hoyer says Democrats consider their early agenda a mandate from Americans to achieve specific goals, after which a more open system will prevail.

Democrats insist there will be no backtracking on key pillars, including the question of ethics reform and restoring integrity to Congress.

Among other things, they will introduce changes to prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts, meals or travel from lobbyists or lobbying organizations.

"We ran on an agenda, the Democrats, to move this country in a new direction, and to bring change most fundamentally to Washington, and to the way the people's business is done in the people's house," said Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic Caucus Chairman.

Another measure would require new disclosures on special-interest funding measures known as earmarks, and restore a system requiring new spending to be offset by cuts in other budget areas.

As House Democrats assume control they are also facing pressure from some radical opponents of the Iraq war.

Cindy Sheehan, activist and mother of a soldier who died in Iraq, spoke after she and fellow demonstrators demanding a U.S. troop withdrawal drowned out a Democratic news conference:

"De-escalate, investigate, troops home now," the demonstrators chanted.

"Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic leadership can no longer tell us what is on the table," said Sheehan. "The American public are the employers and we want them to know that what is on the table is not voting for any more supplemental spending for the killing in Iraq."

Democrats are waiting to hear what President Bush proposes on Iraq, amid reports he may call for a temporary increase of as many as 20,000 troops.

Majority Leader-elect Hoyer offered a word of caution Wednesday, saying the president has "been almost uniformly wrong on Iraq."

In coming weeks, Congress will consider a new supplemental spending request from the Bush administration for billions more in funding for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Democratic leaders, including Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, reject calls from some anti-war Democrats for a congressional funding cutoff, saying U.S. forces in Iraq must have the full support of Congress.

But Democrats will press the administration to include funding in regular annual budgets rather than as separate requests, a step also recommended by a bi-partisan panel set up by Congress to examine possible changes in U.S. policy. Democrats will also plan to place greater scrutiny on spending, and investigate such things as waste by contractors in Iraq.