The 108th Congress of the United States of America commenced work this week with the Republicans now in control of both houses as well as the White House, two new leaders, a 3.1 percent pay raise for the 535 members, and a very full plate of issues to deal with.
The results of the 2002 elections put Republicans in control of the Senate, as well as the House which they had before. The Republicans' thin margins of control, however, mean that even though President Bush's Administration will now have much better prospects than in the previous Congress of pushing through its programs - thus also incurring a much higher level of responsibility for the results of the Congress' work - there are still enough Democrats around to assure that alternate points of view will be heard and taken into account.
Two new faces emerge in the top four line-up of the Congress. Sen. Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, is Senate majority leader, in place of Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, whose political career self-destructed in late 2002. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, is the new House minority leader. Sen. Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, becomes Senate minority leader with the change of control. Rep. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, remains speaker of the House.
Another factor in congressional behavior this session will be the apparent presidential candidacies of at least five Democratic members, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
Americans wishing to see the Congress do its work will not have the same fascination with a presidential race still 22 months off that either President Bush or the Democratic candidates for the nomination will have. People's assessments of the performance of putative presidential candidates will not be softened by knowledge that each will be seeking the $35-40 million in financing apparently needed to wage a credible campaign for the nomination.
Congress faces a stiff agenda of issues to address. First has to be to complete work on the appropriations bills to fund this year's government work and extension of federal unemployment benefits, jobs left unfinished at the end of last year's session, after the Nov. 5 elections.
Second in urgency will be consideration of war with Iraq, based on the Jan. 27 report to the United Nations Security Council by the U.N. inspectors currently at work in Iraq. Whatever the inspectors' conclusions at that point, consideration in New York of a Security Council resolution will be the next step before proceeding.
It may be that the Bush Administration thinks it has a sufficient mandate from Congress, based on the resolutions passed by both houses in October, to proceed to war without further consultation. That would be, however, to forget Mr. Bush's public pledge of Oct. 7, prior to passage of the resolutions, to do so, and that war would be contingent upon requisite Security Council resolutions.
Given the reservations that many Americans continue to express about going to war with Iraq, Mr. Bush cannot avoid consultation with Congress before proceeding, to avoid the grave risk of taking the nation to war without the support of the American people, provided through their legislative representatives.
Other important matters on Congress' platter include prescription drug benefits, with or without Medicare reform; competing administration and Democratic economic incentive packages; confirmation of a long list of nominees to vacant judicial positions; the new budget and future deficits, dependent in part on taxation changes in the rival incentive programs, and consideration of nominations of new secretaries of the Treasury and Homeland Security and the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Let the work begin.