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New Majority in a New Congress


The new, 110th session of the U.S. Congress opens today with Democrats enjoying majority status in both houses for the first time in 12 years. But whether they can translate a slight numerical advantage into legislation is an open question. As VOA's Peter Fedynsky reports, a successful session could depend not only on the ability of Democrats to rise above partisan interests, but also above personal ones.

Incoming congressional Democrats are promising to raise the minimum wage, cut interest on student loans, expand stem cell research and control energy company profits -- all within the first 100 hours of the new session. But the president can veto measures he does not agree with, and the Democrats do not have enough votes to override him.

In an op-ed article in "The Wall Street Journal" on Wednesday, President Bush offers to cooperate in a spirit of bipartisanship. But he also warns lawmakers: "If they choose to pass bills that are simply political statements, they will have chosen stalemate."

Amy Walter is a political analyst with the Cook Political Report. She says, "The president is saying to Democrats, you're not the only ones who control the agenda here. I am the president; I am the bully pulpit. I am going to put my agenda forward."

Analysts say the president is likely to compromise on issues such as minimum wage and social security reform. But unlike Democrats, Mr. Bush supports tax cuts and opposes stem cell research. The president is also likely to spark controversy if, as expected, he proposes a troop surge in Iraq.

But prominent Democrats, including several with presidential ambitions, oppose a troop increase. Bruce Riedel is a Middle East Analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C. "It will be no surprise to anyone that all of this will be intimately connected with presidential maneuvering, as all of those people will be thinking about where their position on a surge places them in regards to 2008."

Analysts expect the Democrats to use the committee process to oversee the administration's handling of Iraq policy and other important issues. Bob Cusack, managing editor of "The Hill," a newspaper about Congress, says successful legislation depends on Speaker Nancy Pelosi's ability to control the personal interests and agendas of her committee chairmen. "If she can work with them cooperatively, and not get into a lot of public spats, I think that's going to be the key to her success."

Pelosi, the new speaker of the House and the first woman to hold the position, says American voters have demanded a change of direction in Congress.

"They spoke out for a new direction to bring integrity - integrity - back to Washington. And we will make this the most honest, ethical and open Congress in history," she said.

Bob Cusack says Democrats know that voters expect them to pass ethics reform, although many lawmakers would prefer not to. "It's always tough passing lobbying/ethics reforms, because the Congress is, therefore, regulating itself. And a lot of lawmakers don't like those rules; they don't like having to report quarterly. They just don't like record-keeping requirements; they just don't like all of these onerous requirements on themselves."

The new Congress begins with bipartisan calls for … bipartisanship. But Congress is a human institution, where the ideal of political cooperation often collides with the realities of partisan interests. The 110th Congress has two years to determine if that collision will be hard or soft.