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DEMOCRATS SWEEP INTO POWER: Will Post-Election Pledges of Bipartisanship Apply When Congress Meets For Its Lame Duck Session?

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“The American people want their leaders in Washington to set aside partisan differences, conduct ourselves in an ethical manner, and work together to address the challenges facing our nation.”

The dramatic tidal wave that swept Democrats into power in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives also appears to have washed away some of the partisan bickering that has plagued Washington, DC for the last few years. Whether the collegiality and compromise that emerged post-election will continue into the lame duck session of Congress during the week of November 13 remains to be seen.

“The message [on Election Day] was clear,” President Bush said. “The American people want their leaders in Washington to set aside partisan differences, conduct ourselves in an ethical manner, and work together to address the challenges facing our nation.”

House Minority Leader and Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) echoed the president’s comments after meeting with him on November 9. “I look forward to working in a confidence-building way with the President, recognizing that we have our differences and we will debate them, and that is what our founders intended,” she said. “But we will do so in a way that gets results for the American people.”

With a gain of at least twenty-eight seats in the House of Representatives and a six-seat gain in the U.S. Senate, Democrats will take over control of both chambers of Congress when they return in mid-January. For the time being, however, Congress still needs to act on the ten outstanding spending bills that will fund the government in 2007, including the one that funds the U.S. Department of Education. Currently, the government is operating on a continuing resolution, or stopgap spending measure, that expires on November 17.

While most of the country’s attention has been focused on the Democratic majorities that will control Congress in January, it is important to remember that Republicans will continue to dictate the legislative agenda for the remainder of the year. Congress returns on November 13.

In October, House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) expressed a desire to finish action on the spending bills during the lame duck session. “We have got to have some answers on how we complete the appropriations process,” he said. “I do not want the appropriations process to carry over into next year; it just delays action on next year’s work.” Of course, that statement was made before Republicans knew that they would be the minority party in January. Now, many observers expect lawmakers to clear another short-term continuing resolution that extends into January and to leave the spending bills to the new Congress. That’s what occurred in 2002, when the Senate flipped to Republican control.

There is the possibility that Congress could enact an omnibus bill that wraps several of the unfinished spending bills into one piece of legislation to be sent to the president, but that will require Republicans and Democrats to act on the bipartisan rhetoric that has emerged after the election. “If the Democratic leadership says we want to get this stuff done now and we don’t want it on our desk, that would be positive, in that maybe we could wrap it up into an omnibus [appropriations] bill,” said G. William Hoagland, budget advisor to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN).

A senior Democratic appropriations aide cautioned, however, that while Democrats would probably prefer to get the bills finished, they would want to pass bills under circumstances they could live with. The aide said that it was still likely that Democrats would press for the additional $7 billion in funding for health, education, and labor programs that was agreed to earlier in the year.

In March, the Senate passed an amendment by Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA)the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which added $7 billion to the pool of money available for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Labor. The amendment, which enjoyed considerable bipartisan support, passed on a 73–27 vote. In May, Republican House moderates received a pledge from Boehner for an additional $7 billion for the Departments of Labor, HHS, and Education in exchange for their support on the congressional budget resolution. In recent months, however, it has seemed likely that the additional funds would be less than promised.

As reported in CQ Today, Hoagland said that GOP leaders and the White House would probably oppose any demands from Democrats that they bust budget caps to add billions in spending for domestic programs. For his part, the senior Democratic appropriations aide said that other options could be employed to offset the funding, including advanced appropriations or designating some spending as “emergency,” so that it would not count against budget caps.

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