Democrats plan jam-packed agenda to precede State of the Union address

Friday, December 1st 2006, 6:26 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told fellow Democrats she wants to pass the party's six top legislative items and toughen ethics rules before President Bush delivers his State of the Union address.

The president's speech is tentatively scheduled for January 23rd, meaning that Pelosi, D-California, and the new Democratic majority would have less than three weeks to pass the bills that formed the core of the party's campaign platform.

The measures would raise the minimum wage, expand the opportunity for federally funded research on embryonic stem cells and permit, but not require, the government to negotiate for lower Medicare drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

Democrats also intend to repeal an unspecified series of energy company tax breaks; implement the recommendations of the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and reduce the cost of student loans.

The minimum wage legislation is likely to call for an increase from the current wage floor of $5.15 an hour to $7.25. The increase would take effect in two steps, and be fully in place on January 1, 2009.

Officials have said in recent days the stem cell legislation will be virtually identical to the bill Bush vetoed last year. The president supports federally funded research on only those stem cell lines created before August 9, 2001, the date of his speech to the nation on the subject.

Critics say research on additional lines are necessary if they are to explore the possibilities for potential treatment or cure of numerous illnesses.

Numerous details remain to be worked out on other bills, however, as Democrats try to fashion their legislation to meet another campaign promise, no new deficit spending.

As an example, several officials have said it is possible that the initial bill relating to student loans will cut the interest rate in half only for one year, given the expense of a permanent change. Democrats have pledged a permanent change, and would presumably return to the issue later in the year.

Each of the bills will face additional hurdles in the Senate. There, the rules give Republicans greater ability to force votes on proposed amendments, and it is unclear how soon any of the measures will reach Bush's desk.

The new Congress convenes on January 4th, but newly elected Democrats will be in the Capitol beginning Tuesday for organizational meetings.

The leadership has arranged for two seminars for the new lawmakers, many of whom have little grounding in the issues they will have to confront beginning early next year.

Three critics of President Bush's Iraq policy will speak at a session scheduled for Tuesday. They include Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Carter's national security adviser, Richard Holbrooke, who served in the Clinton administration, and retired Maj. Gen. John R. S. Batiste.

Batiste, in particular, was unsparing in his criticism of the war in remarks to a pre-election forum conducted by Senate Democrats.

``I believe that Secretary (of Defense Donald H.) Rumsfeld and others in the administration did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war in Iraq,'' he said at the time.

Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin will speak on Wednesday at a session devoted to the economy.