Eager for a quick start, Democratic congressional leaders intend to begin work in early January on priority legislation so it can be ready for President-elect Barack Obama's signature shortly after he takes office, according to officials familiar with the plans.
These officials said an economic aid measure, legislation to expand health care for lower-income children and a loosening of Bush administration rules covering federally funded embryonic stem cell research are among the bills at the center of discussions with Obama aides.
All three issues have been the focus of battles between the Democrats in Congress and President George W. Bush, and early enactment of any would underscore the change ushered in by this month's election.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to disclose the plans.
Meanwhile, John Podesta, a leader of Obama's transition team, told senior Democratic aides on Friday the incoming administration is making its Cabinet and sub-Cabinet selections faster than customary and hopes the nominees can be confirmed quickly.
No slow start this time
Democrats gained at least 20 House seats and at least seven Senate seats in the November elections, expanded majorities in place when the new Congress is sworn in on Jan 6. Under the Constitution, Obama takes the oath of office as the 44th president on Jan. 20.
Customarily, the preinaugural period is slow in Congress as lawmakers await the swearing-in of a new president. They then spend weeks doing little more than confirming Cabinet secretaries and other officials.
But Democrats now will have control of the White House and Congress for the first time since 1994, and officials in both branches of government are eager to begin work.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at a news conference Friday the focus for the first week of Congress "will be to introduce a strong recovery package to create jobs, good paying jobs, in our country and to bring more confidence to the financial crisis — to turn around the financial crisis."
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., declined comment on plans for early legislation.
But Obama said in the Democrat radio address Saturday he has asked his economic advisers to develop a plan that will create 2.5 million jobs by 2011 — "a plan big enough to meet the challenges we face that I intend to sign soon after taking office."
Hoping for Republican help
To a large degree, Democratic plans to prepare legislation before Obama takes his oath depend on the cooperation of Senate Republicans. While the GOP lost seats, Republicans have enough strength to slow the routine housekeeping matters that must be settled out before committees can begin to work, as well as to impede the progress of legislation.
Obama said he recognized that passing an economic aid plan will not be easy. "I will need and seek support from Republicans and Democrats, and Ill be welcome to ideas and suggestions from both sides of the aisle," he said on the radio. "But what is not negotiable is the need for immediate action."
One stimulus bill was signed into law last winter, but Democratic efforts to pass a second have run into opposition from the Bush administration as well as congressional Republicans, who oppose provisions for federal spending on public works projects and other elements.
The expansion of federally funded health care for lower income children was the subject of a bruising veto battle between Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2007.
The president twice vetoed bills on the subject and was upheld each time. The administration said any such measures should put poor children fist, and contended the legislation did not.
Stumbling over stem cells
The embryonic stem cell issue has been an emotional one since the early days of the Bush administration, when the president established rules saying federal money could be used for research only on pre-existing lines of cells. Congress twice tried to overturn his policy; Bush's vetoes were upheld both times.
Supporters say the legislation would allow federal dollars to be used on research that shows promise in treatment and even cures of numerous diseases.
Critics say the research involves the destruction of human embryos, and oppose it on those grounds. They also say alternative forms of stem cell research show promise. "Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical," Bush said as he vetoed the second measure.
Not all conservatives, or even all abortion opponents, agree with his position.
As president, Obama could use his own authority to overturn Bush's executive order limiting the use of federal money for embryonic stem cell research. Enactment of legislation would be a stronger step, because no future president could undo it without a subsequent act of Congress.