Friday, January 12, 2007

Democrats' 100-Hour Agenda Advances Smoothly

The 110th Congress, the first in twelve years under Democratic leadership, continued today to push its much-lauded 100-Hour Plan. The House of Representatives, pushed by newly-elected Speaker Nancy Pelosi (the first woman to ever hold that office), passed yesterday morning a piece of legislation giving extensive federal funding to stem-cell research.
The bill, which would overturn a 2001 Bush Administration ban on such scientific activity, gives a tremendous boost to the controversial experimentation that has been at the center of the moral values debate since nit emerged onto the cultural stage some nine years ago in the late 1990's. Proponents of stem cell research argue that the science offers great promise to those suffering from spinal cord injuries (and the accompanying paralysis), blindess, most types of cancers, spinabifida, Alzheimer's, and a score of other diseases. To deny funding for such potentially life-giving treatment, they say, sacrifices medical advance and human health for the sake of ideology.
Critics of stem cell usage counter that, in creating and destroying embryos (which are used for in vitro fertilization), scientists are playing God with human life. One such person was Senator Sam Brownback (R, KS), who said of the Democratic measure, "We all want to find cures and treatments for the many diseases and maladies that affect millions of Americans, but there are better options than research that kills nascent human lives."
Mr. Brownback has the support of many other prominent Republicans, including President Bush, who has threatened to veto the act if it passes the Senate. Mr. Bush cast the first veto of his presidency in August of 2006, shooting down a nearly identical bill that had enjoyed bipartisan cooperation in both houses of Congress.
While the Senate will likely give narrow approval to the House's proposal, the draft seems to be headed for defeat; the vote in the lower chamber was 253 for, 174 against, short of the 290 needed to override a presidential veto. This problem is compounded by the fact that Democrats have a mere one-seat majority in the Senate and almost certainly would fail in any override attempt (assuming that such an effort made it out of the House).
An equally divisive bill came through the House this morning, this one requiring the federal government directly negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare patients with major pharmaceutical companies. Under current regulations, a noninterference clause prohibits the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Michael Levitt) from engaging in any such talks with the private drug industry.
President Bush has also threatened to veto this new law, saying that natural economic competition among insurance agencies should and will ensure the lowest possible costs for American consumers.
A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 81% of U.S. seniors supported direct bargaining between the government and drug companies, with 67% "strongly" wishing for the bill to be enacted.
While stem cell research and Medicare costs have created ire on both sides of the aisle, other aspects of the Democrats' ambitious plan have gone more easily. On January 5th, the House implemented a new "pay-as-you-go" policy, requiring that any federal tax cuts be met with tax increases in other economic sectors or reductions in government spending. A response to the historic deficits that have accrued under the Bush Administration, this effort has been widely praised.
Another Democratic action that has proven popular was the January 9th vote to implement the recommendations made by the 9/11 commission, which convened in the summer of 2004 to study the time leading up to September 11th and conclude what could have been done to prevent the attacks. If the legislation passes the Senate and is signed by the President (as it is expected to), all air and sea cargo entering the United States will have to be inspected before being unloaded onto American shores. Under the laws now in place, less than 5% of cargo reaching the U.S. is searched for hazardous materials. This provision will become fully effective within five years.
By far the most popular Democratic measure to date in the new Congress was lobbying reform initiated by that party on January 4th, which prohibited lawmakers from receiving gifts, going on trips, or taking flights paid for by interest groups. The act passed the House by 430 to 1.
On January 10th, the House voted 315 to 116 to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour within the next twenty-six months. The wage increase seems to be a solid piece of legislation, and is forecast to easily pass through the Senate. A Democratic effort to pass a similar bill last year was fought and eventually extinguished by conservative members in the then-Republican chamber.
Within the next week, Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic leadership intend to continue advancing their agenda, with votes scheduled on legislation that would halve interest rates on college loans and end multi-billion dollar federal subsidies to large oil companies.