Democrats steamrolled into a House majority last night, controlling Capitol Hill for the first time since most University seniors started reading chapter books. Nancy Pelosi is set to become the first female Speaker of the House, and American voters effectively halted President Bush’s domestic agenda.
What will Democrats do with their newfound ability to advance their own agenda? Nothing fancy, analysts say. Even if Democrats scrap up a 51st seat in the Senate, don’t expect a pendular policy swing.
Despite losing most of the contested House seats, Republicans can rest in the comfort that yesterday’s election probably won’t result in a pervasive liberalization of Washington. Yes, Democrats made some gains in this election, but experts say they’re likely to be careful for fear they could screw up 2008.
Charles Shipan, a public policy professor and an expert on Congressional politics, said the Pelosi Democrats will be moderate, using the House to push relatively uncontroversial legislation through Congress.
“I don’t think we’ll see a lot of major policy changes,” he said.
But we might see some new causes, he said. A Democratic House will probably take up issues like raising the minimum wage, something to which a Republican Congress would be averse.
Yesterday’s Democratic victories could also mean a boost at the bottom line of students’ financial aid reports. Increasing the accessibility of higher education was a top priority on the platform Democrats quietly released back in June. The 31-page “New Direction for America” advocates tax credits for science, math, technology and engineering students’ tuition. Leading Democrats such as Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) have proposed bills that would bust corporate tax shelters, using the money to increase the maximum Pell Grant from $4,050 to $4,500 and restore cuts in work-study funding and Perkins loans.
Don’t expect to see the new blue Capitol Hill residents take on any touchy issues, especially those dear to the hearts of social conservatives like abortion, gay marriage or stem cell research, Shipan said.
“Dems just aren’t going to touch those,” he said, adding that they don’t want to stir up counter-currents.
As far as what might happen in Iraq, Shipan said it would be difficult for Democrats to cobble together a consensus in their own party cohesive enough to put forth a solid policy.
“Democrats have pretty wide-ranging opinions on the war,” he said. There’s a very vocal faction that maintains the United States never should have gone to war, a set that agreed with the war initially but now wants to cut losses and a group that still sees a possible victory at the end of the tunnel.
But Republicans still hold considerable sway on the Hill. The Senate, even if the Democrats take the majority, will be narrowly divided, and Bush could still block any legislation that might get through Congress. But the important distinction between the 109th Congress and the 110th is that this class can force Bush to veto an unfriendly bill, Shipan said. Up until now, Bush has only vetoed one piece of legislation: a bill to give more federal funds to stem cell research in September.
The wildcard issue in the new Congress will be immigration. Bush, at dramatic odds with his party over his proposed guest-worker program, could find some favor in House Democrats.
But new immigration bills definitely won’t involve guest workers, Shipan said, and Democrats will “bend over backwards” to prevent passing something that could be tagged as amnesty. Still, the odd couple of a Pelosi House and a Bush White House might join forces to pass a bill that would institute various penalties or payments of back taxes in exchange for a road toward American citizenship.
Much, including the final balance of the Senate, is yet to be determined. But Democrats have made inroads on Republican power, and if analysts’ predictions prove true, they could get a chance to have things their way for the first time in many of our political memories.