Party ideals, legislative realities collide

February 1, 2007 By    

Last month’s column highlighted the Democrats’ hope for swift passage of their priorities compared with some of the hard realities of legislating.

Since then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered on the first 100 hours of the new session what she and fellow Democrats promised in their campaign. Now, these top Democratic priorities – including action on oil industry tax repeal, wage increases, stem cell research, Medicare prescription drugs, student loan rates and 9/11 security measures – are on their way to the Senate.

 Lisa Bontempo, Washington Bureau
Lisa Bontempo, Washington Bureau

As reported in the Washington Post, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), the Senate’s majority whip, was asked what will happen when the bills come to his chamber. He answered by recalling former House Speaker Tom Foley saying “Remember, the Republicans are the opposition. The enemy is the Senate.” Especially with a slim margin of 51 Democrats to 49 Republicans, the Senate is expected to move slowly on the “Six in 06” bills.

One example of interest to the industry is the recent House passage of an increase in the minimum wage over two years from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour. The measure passed the House of Representatives swiftly with bipartisan support by a vote of 315 to 116. Eighty-two Republicans voted for it, and House Democratic leaders made certain that no amendments would be added to the bill to ensure that it would not get bogged down in debate. Congressional passage would give Democrats a significant early victory to tout.

While House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) has vowed to see that no other measure gets attached to this bill, the Senate has different ideas. If Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has his way, the version of the minimum wage bill that will pass Congress will include $8 billion worth of tax breaks for small businesses. His proposal includes an extension of the Section 179 expensing provision; making permanent the option for businesses to use a cash method of accounting instead of the accrual method; and allowing more small businesses to qualify as “S” corporations (thereby allowing business owners to pay personal income tax on their earning, not corporate income tax, similar to partnerships.)

To “offset” or pay for these tax breaks, Baucus proposes to raise revenue by limiting to $1 million the amount of deferred compensation for executives. To do this, he will need a tax vehicle to attach his proposal and the only current measure available is the minimum wage bill.

While Rangel will try to stick to his guns to keep tax provisions from being attached to his minimum wage bill, he knows the Senate is not likely to get the 60 votes needed to pass a minimum wage increase without the business tax cuts and the revenue raisers being proposed with it. Clearly, quite a bit of negotiating and compromise will have to happen to make this Democratic priority a real legislative victory. Calling the just-passed “Six in ’06” bills flawed, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) believes the bills will “either face an up-hill battle in the Senate or are destined for a veto pen.”

With his recent Iraq strategy causing breaks in his own party and with a Democratic-controlled Congress, the president may not be able to move his party’s priorities. But he does have the ability to veto legislation to stop the Democrat’s priorities put before him. The president’s veto power is a real concern of the Democrats who may not be able to rally the two-thirds majority votes needed to override his veto.

The House’s recent success in moving six priorities through their chamber is about to run smack into the hard realities of the Senate’s slow pace, the power of the presidential veto, and the growing debates over Iraq and other issues of importance coming before the Congress.

With the floor show over, now begins the hard job of legislating and a true test of leadership for both the newly minted House and Senate leaders and for President Bush.

Lisa Bontempo was a longtime energy lobbyist, including 13 years with NPGA. She remains involved in national politics, and can be reached at

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