Democrats Look to Score Quick Victory as New Congress Nears

November 10, 2006
The new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate are likely to move quickly on raising the minimum wage, while another workforce issue—immigration reform—could serve as a touchstone for the bipartisanship that both parties are promising in the wake of the midterm elections.

Both Rep. George Miller, D-California, who is likely to become chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, who is likely to become chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, have made boosting hourly wages a priority.

Kennedy plans to reintroduce a bill in January that would increase the federal minimum wage to $7.25 from $5.15. Although similar measures gained bipartisan support in the current Congress, they were stymied by Republican leadership.

A wage bill is one of the six priorities that Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, the soon-to-be speaker of the House, has designated for passage in the first 100 hours of the new Congress.

Adding momentum to the issue, voters in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio approved raising the minimum wage in their states.

The wage focus could be a harbinger of how Democrats will shift the policy debate toward low-income people.

"We will work to ensure not only that the economy grows but that all families benefit from it," Miller said in a statement announcing his intention to run for the workforce committee chairmanship. "To get us started on the path toward these goals, we will act quickly to raise the national minimum wage and to cut interest rates in half on college loans."

Another top priority cited by Miller is reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, a bill designed to raise school standards.

In addition to raising the minimum wage and restoring funds cut from higher education, House Democrats put another issue with potential workforce implications on their "first 100 hours" list--allowing the government to negotiate with drug companies to lower Medicare prescription costs. Such a policy could affect retiree health benefits.

After the flurry of activity likely to accompany the formal Democratic takeover of the House and Senate, an issue on a longer timeframe could indicate whether Democrats and Republicans will be able to work together. In a news conference the day after the election, President Bush cited immigration reform as an area where his party and Democrats might be able to agree.

Bush, many Democrats and some moderate Republicans have favored comprehensive changes to immigration law that would include strengthening border security and workplace enforcement, establishing a guest worker program and providing a path to naturalization for many of the country’s estimated 12 million illegal workers.

Conservative Republicans, however, championed a bill—passed by the House last December—that focused solely on border security and enforcement. Instead of beginning negotiations over the summer to reconcile the measure with a comprehensive Senate companion, the House Republican leadership held a series of national hearings designed to undermine support for the Senate approach and rebuke what they called "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.

In September, Congress approved a bill to build a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. But last week, several Republicans who fueled their campaigns on a punitive immigration message lost their races. That may clear a path for Bush and Democrats to come together.

"There’s an issue where I believe we can find some common ground with Democrats," Bush says.

One business lobbyist forecasts a better climate for comprehensive reform under the Democrats.

"There’s going to be some sort of consensus around (a) guest worker program," says Jay Timmons, senior vice president for policy and government relations at the National Association of Manufacturers.

But the political calculus of the election may equal another complicated immigration debate next year. Many of the Democrats who make up the new majority ran to the right of their party’s Washington leadership.

For instance, Brad Ellsworth defeated incumbent GOP Rep. John Hostettler handily, 61 percent to 39 percent. Hostettler, chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, has been a leading proponent of increasing employer sanctions.

But Ellsworth, an Indiana sheriff, came down in pretty much the same place as Hostettler on the issue during the campaign.

"We need to enforce the laws that are on the books," Ellsworth says. "We should not reward the people who came here illegally."

Beyond the conservative tendencies of many of the new Democrats, it’s not clear where some of the veteran Democrats stand on work-site enforcement. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who is likely to take Hostettler’s place as the chairwoman of the Judiciary subcommittee, has not stated a position on the issue.

But an advocate of comprehensive immigration reform says that it is not likely that the new Congress will settle on an enforcement-only bill that features employer verification of employee identity.

"I don’t think there’s the stomach in the House to move only a verification system," says Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum. "And in the Senate they know better."

Another longer-term pursuit for the Democrats will be their Innovation Agenda, which calls for graduating 100,000 new scientists, mathematicians and engineers during the next four years, investing in scientific and medical research like stem cells, establishing universal broadband access and achieving energy independence.

On health care, Democrats will resist President Bush’s push to expand health savings accounts.

"HSAs are not health policy, they’re tax policy. And we’re shifting more of the health burden onto workers," Rep. Pete Stark, D-California, said at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing in September.

Stark, who asserted that tax breaks for HSAs would be better spent on expanding health coverage for children and seniors, would likely become chairman of the Ways and Means health subcommittee. He also is advocating a proposal aimed at achieving universal health coverage by establishing a program to provide insurance to people not covered by employers.

One analyst says Democrats would be loath to push a government-based health care proposal like the one that foundered during the Clinton administration. But they may try to facilitate state efforts to force employers to provide coverage.

A Maryland judge shot down that state’s so-called Wal-Mart bill because he said it violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which ensures that multi-state employers can offer the same benefits package to all of their employees. More than 30 similar measures are percolating in state legislatures nationwide.

Democrats "would weaken ERISA to the point that it would enable these state-by-state health care reform initiatives to move forward," says Bruce Davis, a principal at Findley Davies, a consulting firm in Toledo, Ohio.

Setting the agenda
The Democrats’ 11-seat majority in the House (as of November 10) and their two-seat advantage in the Senate may not add up to a decisive change on Capitol Hill. Many of the new Democrats will not be raring to implement a liberal agenda.

With their small advantages in each chamber, Democrats may have to scramble—and compromise—for votes. And if they can get legislation through Congress, Bush remains at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue with his veto pen in hand.

"In order to get anything done, we’re going to have to have tight majorities, which means that legislation that emerges from either party is likely to be more moderate," says Mike Aitken, director of governmental affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management.

On the other hand, the fierce partisanship that defined the midterm elections may carry over into the Congress and bog down the legislative process.

"The desire to sharpen party differences for the 2008 presidential race militates against compromise," says Geoff Manville, a principal in the Washington office of Mercer Human Resource Consulting. "We’re in for a session of stalemate."

The difference for Democrats now is that they will be the protagonists. They’ll set the agenda while the Republicans push back. Before the election, the GOP warned that Democratic control of the workforce committee would result in higher taxes, new employer mandates and more government influence on business.

No matter how small the difference in numbers between parties, the ability to move legislation to the floor is solely under the purview of the majority. With their victory, Democrats will wield a parliamentary mechanism that they have not enjoyed since 1994. The party will control the Rules Committee, which determines the House agenda and sets limits on how a bill can be amended.

That means legislation under which a union could be authorized if a majority of workers sign cards would almost certainly come to a vote before the full House. The bill already has 216 co-sponsors, some of whom are Republicans.

Unions have made the so-called card-check bill, titled the Employee Free Choice Act, a legislative priority. The Republican majority has blocked that bill while promoting its own legislation that would require that every union vote occur by secret ballot.

Another bill that may get a boost from a Democratic majority is a measure that would make it illegal for a corporation to eliminate retiree health benefits. Right now, the legislation has about 60 co-sponsors, all of whom are Democrats.

It’s not clear whether the measure will be a priority for a Democratic majority, but its journey to the floor is now smoother in a Democrat-led workforce committee.

Committee control
By gaining committee power, Democrats will be able to frame the policy discourse in a way that eluded them in the minority.

Elisabeth Gehl, director of public policy for Business and Professional Women/USA, says Democrats are more inclined to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act and consider the Healthy Families Act, a piece of legislation that would provide paid sick leave for those who don’t have it.

Under Kennedy, workplace flexibility likely will become more prominent. "One of the big differences is that some of these bills would get committee hearings," Gehl says. "Hearings get the issue out there and talked about."

Although they’re now empowered on Capitol Hill, Democrats won’t be able to accomplish much alone. That’s why Paul Miller, executive director of, is reaching out to Republicans on the retiree health benefit bill.

"We’re looking for a bipartisan approach," he says. To appeal to the GOP, he’s highlighting provisions that would help companies that face financial hardship in maintaining their retiree programs.

On one issue that is increasingly important to corporate executives—education—Republicans and Democrats already seem to be moving toward harmony. Company leaders see education reform as the key to improving the U.S. labor market. Next year, the No Child Left Behind law will be up for reauthorization.

Miller and Rep. Howard McKeon, R-California, who is the current workforce committee chairman, appeared together at a recent Washington event sponsored by the Business Roundtable, and were on the same page. "This should not be a partisan issue," McKeon says.

Those words no doubt were reassuring to Arthur Ryan, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial and chairman of the Business Roundtable’s Education and the Workforce Task Force.

"We need a skilled workforce," he said. Manual labor is no longer enough to keep a family going, he said. "You have to use your brain."

Although conventional wisdom says that Republicans are more sympathetic to business concerns, the new Democratic majority could offer an opportunity for the corporate community.

"Democrats want to govern more than two years," Timmons says. "They are going to extend an olive branch to nontraditional allies."

If solutions to challenges facing employers are going to emanate from Washington, the more Miller, McKeon and business cooperate, the better.

--Mark Schoeff, Jr.