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By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 5/11/2006 8:38:50 AM ET 2006-05-11T12:38:50

If Democrats win the 15 seats they need to get control of the House and the five seats they need to regain the Senate, how will that change the nation’s direction?

For some Democratic activists outside Washington, the overriding need, once their party regains the majority in Congress, is for them to shift the balance of power away from a president they see as dangerously powerful.

Democratic blogger Matt Stoller said in an e-mail interview with MSNBC.com, “We have policies we’d like to see passed,” mentioning such items as an increase in the minimum wage and “a fix to the prescription drug debacle.”

But, he said, “the key issue for us is checks and balances…. Until Bush is forced to respect the law, policy talk is somewhat irrelevant. The Constitutional crisis comes first.”

With Democrats at the helm of congressional committees, the party can pursue a strategy of investigation and subpoena — forcing Bush administration officials to testify and to turn over documents relating to, for example, the National Security Agency surveillance program.

Another Democratic target is the Medicare prescription drug program, which bars the government from forcing pharmaceutical companies to give price discounts. Much of the agenda will be driven by the personalities and perogatives of the lawmakers who will chair key congressional committees. And those chairmanships are predictable, determined largely by seniority.

Contempt of Congress?
If Bush administration officials did not comply with the Democratic subpoenas, they could face contempt of Congress charges and possible imprisonment.

“We will have subpoena power, and that’s why the Republicans are so afraid that we will be able to show the public how they arrived at a (Medicare) prescription drug bill that is born of corruption,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told NBC’s Tim Russert on Meet the Press Sunday. “Investigation is the requirement of Congress. It’s about checks and balances.”

Perhaps the most relentless new committee chairman, if the Democrats win the House, will be Rep. Henry Waxman of California, who is now the senior Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, the House’s principal investigative committee.

In an interview Tuesday, Waxman said that if he takes the helm of the committee in 2007, "I would pursue a much more vigorous set of investigations (than Republicans have)…. I’d certainly consider a high priority to investigate abuse of prisoners, manipulation of intelligence that has gotten us into Iraq, I’d want to know about waste of taxpayers’ money by private contractors, whether it’s in reconstruction of Iraq, or work in the Louisiana-Mississippi Gulf region or for homeland security.”

Under Waxman, heading one of the key subcommittees — in charge of investigating national security — would be Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, whose anti-Iraq war candidacy drew small but fervent support in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2004.

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Investigating Iraq war origins
Kucinich said: “We’re in a war we didn’t have to be in. There needs to be accountability about the use of executive power. People need the truth.” He said he would use his new power to “piece the veil of the illusion” of Bush administration policy in Iraq. He hopes his investigations would help build support for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

Another would-be committee chairman if the Democrats win control in November is Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, who would run the Armed Services Committee. Unlike Pelosi and Kucinich, Skelton voted for the Iraq war. He has been a strong ally of the military throughout his career. If Skelton becomes committee chairman, “I’d have an oversight subcommittee. We would oversee and hopefully prevent mistakes on a strategic level, an operational level and a tactical level. We’d pay particular attention to the troops and their families.”

But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid told reporters Tuesday that his agenda, if he is majority leader next year, is addressing “the energy crisis, health care, allowing our children to go to school – during this administration, tuition costs have gone up 40 percent… these staggering (federal budget) deficits.”

Asked about Senate investigations of Bush administration, Reid said, “I’m not heavily into investigations. That should be way down at the bottom of our agenda.”

Democratic pollster Jeremy Rosner, a former aide to President Clinton said in this year’s campaigns, Democrats must show the electorate that they have “a better way of combating the threat of jihadism. We’re unlikely to do that if we spend our time looking backward and trying to re-litigate the past."

He added, "Many of us are disturbed by the calls for investigations or even impeachment as the defining vision for our party for what we would do if we get back into office. We need to spend more time not talking about plans for impeachment or investigations, but on what we’d do to hunt down terrorists and secure the country.”

Raise taxes on upper-income people?
Rosner and other Clinton administration veterans at the think tank the Progressive Policy Institute have just published a new book "With All Our Might" which offers congressional Democrats new strategies for defeating Islamic terrorists.

Rosner and the Progressive Policy Institute president Will Marshall also call for raising taxes on “the wealthiest among us,” using the revenue to enlarge and modernize the armed forces.

Pelosi and Democratic leaders complain that the Republicans have created deficits, including one this year that the Congressional Budget Office expects to be nearly $340 billion, or about 2.6 percent of Gross Domestic Product.

Pelosi has denounced the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts which most, but not all, Democrats voted against. The implication is that the way to increase revenues and cut future deficits is to raise taxes on upper-income people.

“If Democrats take control of both the House and Senate in the 2006 midterm elections it is virtually certain they would raise individual income tax rates on what they consider upper income, probably everyone making more than a congressman,” predicted Ken Kies, the former chief of staff of the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation who is now head of the Federal Policy Group at Clark Consulting.

“It is likely Bush would veto such legislation thus setting up what is likely to be a major issue in the 2008 presidential race,” Kies said.

But on "Meet the Press" Sunday, Russert asked Pelosi four times whether she’d try to roll back the tax cuts Congress passed since Bush became president; each time she avoided answering the question directly.

Can Bush learn from Clinton?
If the Democrats triumph in November, Kies’s reference to the veto may supply the blueprint to the rest of the Bush presidency.

Bush hasn’t yet vetoed a bill in his five-and-a-half years in office. But if Congress changes hands, he will have a chance to emulate his predecessor Bill Clinton, who had not vetoed any bills from the time he took office in 1993 until August 1995, after the GOP took control of the House and Senate in the 1994 elections.

Clinton ended up killing 37 Republican-passed bills with his veto pen, including two tax cuts, a ban on partial-birth abortion, and the first version of welfare reform.

Clinton’s vetoes helped him win the re-election in 1996 by demonstrating how unyielding he was. “I will not let you destroy Medicare,” Clinton said as he was about to veto the Republican attempt to reduce that program’s growth rate.

Although he’s not running for re-election, Bush might use the veto to revive his presidency as Clinton revived his.

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