On probation

January 04, 2007

Today brings an occasion of great celebration for Democrats in Maryland and throughout the nation as the party officially takes over the management of Congress for the first time in 14 years.

Baltimore native Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi will become speaker of the House, Steny H. Hoyer of St. Mary's County by way of Prince George's takes over as House majority leader, and the overwhelming majority of Democrats in the state's congressional delegation rise in status and power as well.

But with the country still so sharply divided, the Democrats' new grasp on power is strikingly fragile. The party is essentially on probation with the voters - at least for the duration of its first two-year lease.

Much will depend on whether Democrats deliver on their promises: to govern efficiently and democratically from the center, to chart a new course on Iraq, to reimpose spending controls on a runaway budget, to raise ethical standards for an institution mired in muck and to restore a measure of bipartisan civility absent for decades.

Thus, Ms. Pelosi is gambling a bit by putting the highest priority on swift action on the six-part platform of bread-and-butter issues on which her party ran last fall. She plans to ram the proposals through the House without Republican participation.

No one's shedding any tears for the Republicans, who regularly iced Democrats out of meaningful participation. But haste often makes waste, especially in cases where legislative language is not available for review in advance.

Several of the proposals have been through the mill before: A bill to lift President Bush's limits on embryonic stem cell research has passed Congress once, but he vetoed it. A bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 from $5.15 has been waiting 10 years. A third proposal to reorganize the way Congress approves homeland security spending is mostly a housekeeping matter.

But with sketchier proposals to cut the interest rate on student loans, tighten cargo security, direct Medicare to negotiate for prescription drug discounts and end subsidies for Big Oil, it's reassuring to know the Senate will be on the lookout for unintended consequences.

The really difficult challenges lie ahead as the Democrats now have to share with Mr. Bush responsibility for managing the nation's military involvement in Iraq and such domestic challenges as immigration reform and ensuring long-term solvency for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Given the lessons of history and the realities of politics, the odds that Mr. Bush and the new barons of Congress can work together productively seem slim indeed. But on this day when great opportunity still stretches out ahead, we are hoping to be surprised.

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