After setting an ambitious agenda to pass six major pieces of legislation in their first 100 hours in control of the House of Representatives, Democrats shut the lid nearly 60 hours early on Thursday. They passed bills raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 over the next two years; lowering interest rates on some student loans; beefing up cargo inspections to combat terrorism; expanding federally funded stem-cell research; requiring the government to negotiate prescription-drug prices; and curbing tax breaks for oil companies so the money can be invested in renewable energy instead.
But while many Republicans joined the Democrats in passing the legislation — 124 GOP members voted for the student-loan bill, for example — have things really changed much on Capitol Hill? Dems vowed to work in a more bipartisan way in an effort to break some of the deadlock that gripped the previous Congress, but they reportedly shut Republicans out from early sessions to discuss major initiatives (see "It's Official: Democrats Take Over Both Houses Of Congress" and "Democrats Control Both Houses — What Are They Planning To Do With Them?").
MTV News traveled to Washington recently to talk to some Democrats and get a bird's-eye view of the sessions. While they said the winds of change are blowing, their Republican colleagues had a much different view of the initial hours.
Asked to come up with one word that described the mood on Capitol Hill right now, Tom Manatos — a staffer for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — said, "Optimism. Because a lot of the things I've seen in my four years on the Hill ... I really have not been able to say, 'Wow, that is really going to affect people I know.' " He said measures like the minimum-wage hike and student-loan bill will immediately impact some of his friends, who could see the interest on student-loan payments cut in half, saving them thousands of dollars."
Manatos said it's not just office space that's changing in Washington these days, but also legislative priorities, the length of the workweek and even dry-cleaning bills.
"Under Republican control, members of Congress were only really in D.C. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday," he said of the former three-day workweek. "And when the members are not here we can dress business-casual. Now, the Democrats are promising ... [a] five-day workweek, so I gotta wear my suit all five days. ... It's going to be constant work around here. And just because of that, you'll see more things getting done and many more issues being brought to the forefront. Higher dry-cleaning bills, [too]."
Manatos said one of the biggest changes he thinks will take place in Congress is a shift in the majority party's thinking. "The way the Republicans ran this place was for lobbyists and for corporations and there was some corruption," he said. "And the first thing the Democrats did was — as my boss, Speaker Pelosi, said — was [draining] the swamp and [cutting] the link between lobbyists and legislation. So in that first day, we passed these [ethics] rules that banned gifts from lobbyists to members of Congress and their staffs."
Florida Democratic Representative Kendrick Meek, who is in his third term in Congress, says he's excited to see his colleagues reaching across party lines to work together on efforts such as raising the minimum wage. The bill passed 315-116, with 82 Republicans joining 233 Democrats. "It's a good feeling because we have Republicans voting with Democrats on the minimum wage. ... It goes to show you that leaders are leaders and that we can come together on behalf of the country. And I think that is going to be the positive story out of the first 100 hours," he said.
Fellow Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is in her second term, went a step further. She said there is "euphoria" in the House, adding that members of both parties feel a sense of freedom as a result of the change that occurred in leadership. "My first two years in Congress, the experience I observed is that the Republican leadership was involved in arm-twisting and forcing my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to do their bidding," she said. "The agenda was focused on what special interests wanted instead of what the American people wanted, and there is a freedom in the change of the majority. Now we really have an opportunity to implement the priorities of the American people."
For Wasserman Schultz, one of the other energizing aspects of the Democrats' ascension to power was the historic rise of Pelosi to the leadership as the first female speaker in U.S. history. As a mother of two young children, Wasserman Schultz said, "The fact that she demonstrated to little girls and young women that when you are a little girl in America you really can grow up and be anything you want to be."
Now that the initial stage has passed, Meek said he hopes both sides will continue to work together. But the second-youngest House Democrat, 32-year-old Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, added that some of the excitement of being in the majority is the legislative payback: trying to pass bills that Republicans didn't bring up for votes for much of the time they were in power.
"We are actually changing the agenda in Washington, and people are starting to feel it," Ryan said. "Every few days [people] are turning on the news seeing Nancy Pelosi bang the gavel to implement the 9/11 Commission Report, banging the gavel about raising minimum wage, banging the gavel on stem cells, banging the gavel on [cutting] the student-loan interest rates in half. Things have changed dramatically in just really literally only a few hours."
Of the dozen Republican House members who were contacted by MTV News for this story, most declined to speak on the record or make their staff members available. But the chairman of the House Republican Conference, Adam Putnam, released a pointed statement on Thursday in which he decried the Democrats for what he characterized as legislative bullying. "After a series of broken promises, twisted arms and fishy loopholes, the biggest dog-and-pony show in modern legislative history ends today," Putnam wrote.
"It is unfortunate that at the expense of bipartisan due process, Democrats have rammed through the House a watered-down slate of so-called reforms that will never become law in their current form. In the wake of electing the first female speaker of the House, Democrats squandered a historic opportunity to work with Republicans. Not only did the process suffer, but the product did as well.
"The American people have made it crystal-clear that they want both parties to work together to deliver results. The sooner the speaker realizes that, the sooner we can move forward to enact common-sense reforms that will help keep our economy growing, balance our budget and make health care more affordable for working families."
The statement was a clear sign that while Democrats — who hold a 233-202 edge in the House — are elated about their newfound power, their Republican colleagues are still feeling the sting of their electoral rebuke in November. Putnam's comments took aim in particular at Republican anger over not being allowed to offer amendments or help shape legislation.
And even as House Democrats were celebrating their legislative triumphs on Thursday, the bills faced a serious battle in the Senate. In that house, the Democrats hold a much slimmer 51-49 majority — two independent senators are expected to caucus with them — and 60 votes are needed for passage. If passed in the Senate, the bills will face an additional challenge: being signed into law by President Bush.
"Many of the flawed 100-Hours bills either face an uphill battle in the Senate or are destined for a veto pen," Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner said. "President Bush has already threatened to veto some of the bills, including the stem cell and Medicare measures. The House and Senate have to agree on the language of the bills before they are sent to Bush, so it's likely that they will undergo some revision and have amendments added as they wind their way through the Senate."