December 3, 2008 / 7:45 PM / in 9 years

US Senate Democrats will pack plenty of muscle

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON, Dec 3 (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Democrats will be able to do plenty over the next two years -- despite falling just short of their goal of winning a majority big enough to end Republican procedural roadblocks.

Senate Democrats will have the muscle, with the help of a few moderate Republicans, to pass a crush of bills, including ones to stimulate the economy, ensure equal pay for women, ease global warming, lower prescription drug prices for the elderly and change course in the Iraq war.

Together these measures would provide new President Barack Obama a string of victories after he takes office on Jan. 20.

Republican Saxby Chambliss won re-election in a run-off contest in Georgia on Tuesday, preserving his party’s ability to block legislation in the 100-member Senate with procedural roadblocks known as filibusters.

Sixty votes are needed to override the roadblocks, which Republicans routinely invoked over the past two years to stop or at least slow down legislation they opposed.

With one Senate race yet to be decided from the Nov. 4 election -- votes in Minnesota are being recounted -- Democrats have gained seven seats, meaning they will have at least 58 when the new 111th Congress convenes on Jan. 6.

Senate Democrats -- liberals and moderates -- differ on several fronts, such as oil drilling, health care and even outgoing Republican President George W. Bush’s tax cuts.

But Democrats will be able to reach 60 with the help of a handful of moderate Republicans willing to break ranks with their conservative leadership on certain issues.

"Democrats are going to have 60 votes a lot of the time," said Ethan Siegal of The Washington Exchange, a private firm that tracks Congress for institutional investors.

"Republicans have to be very careful about blocking things and not giving Obama a chance to pass legislation that can help the economy," Siegal added.

Bush and his fellow Republicans in Congress worked with Democrats to enact an economic stimulus package this year. But they have rejected Democrats’ calls for a second such measure.

With expanded majorities in the House of Representatives as well as the Senate, Democrats hope to give Obama a broad stimulus package to sign when he takes office. Defeated Republican presidential contender John McCain will likely be among those who cross the aisle.

While McCain opposes Democratic efforts to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, the veteran senator from Arizona backs their calls to combat global warming.

"We’ll be in good shape," said a Democratic aide, citing a list of measures that Senate Republicans filibustered and that Democrats now figure they can pass.

They include legislation to:

* Give residents of the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C., a full-voting representative in the U.S. House. It presently has no voting rights in Congress.

* Allow the government to negotiate with companies the prices of drugs covered under the Medicare program for the elderly.

* Overhaul U.S. immigration policy with a guest temporary guest worker program and border security.

* Mandate that U.S. military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan be allowed to remain at home for the same amount of time they spent in battle.

* Reverse a U.S. Supreme Court decision that made it tougher for workers to sue for pay discrimination.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has warned Obama and Democrats to watch their step. He said it would be a mistake from them to try to jam through the Senate "a laundry list of left-wing proposals."

He cited in particular a measure blocked by Republicans in the past that would require companies to recognize a union if a majority of their workers signed a petition in favor of one.

This would eliminate secret-ballot elections that critics charge can be unfairly influenced by companies. But backers of the secret ballot call it a basic tenet of democracy.

"The notion ... we would get rid of the secret ballot is utter nonsense," McConnell said, adding Democrats should reach out and work with Republicans as promised by Obama.

(Editing by David Wiessler)




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