President Bush delivered his State of the Union address to the newly elected 110th Congress on January 23 at a time when his Presidency faces considerable challenges. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted the day before the speech, his approval rating stood at 33%. This is the lowest approval rating of any President on the occasion of their delivery of the State of the Union speech since that of Richard Nixon in 1974. It is a far cry from the 83% approval rating the President enjoyed when he gave the speech in January of 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For the first time in his Presidency, he also spoke to a Congress now fully under the control of the Democrats. While the President's speech defended his policy in Iraq and recommended the enactment of legislation such as that to reduce gasoline consumption, expand health coverage and reform immigration, the power to set the legislative agenda has been lost to the Republicans and shifted to the Democrats. Democrats have promised to cooperate with the Administration on certain legislative items, but the result of the November elections means that the Democrats in the new Congress will now be in the driver's seat. When the First Session of the 110th Congress convened on January 4, the House immediately broke 218 years of precedent by electing Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as the first female Speaker of the House. In addition to Speaker Pelosi there are 89 other women in the 110th Congress; 74 in the House and 16 in the Senate. There are 42 African American members of the House and one African American Senator. Twenty-seven members of the House are Hispanic as are three members of the Senate. Those of Protestant denominations make up the largest religious group in the new Congress with Roman Catholics being the largest single denomination. The Freshman Class of the House has the first Muslim and the first two Buddhists to serve in Congress. The average age of members of the House in this Congress is 55 and that of members of the Senate is 61. The 110th Congress has a House made up of 233 Democrats and 202 Republicans, and a Senate with 51 Democrats and 49 Republicans.
While the Congress traditionally goes into a Recess after the swearing in ceremonies until the State of the Union speech, under the leadership of the new Speaker, the House immediately began implementing its "100 hour legislative agenda". Under this plan the House Democrats pledged to enact seven of their legislative priorities within the first 100 hours of the new Congress. On Thursday, January 18, the Speaker announced that the final House vote on the seven priority items had been completed. By her clock, which counted only the time that the House actually had legislation under consideration on the House Floor, the process had consumed only 42 hours and 15 minutes. The bills which passed the House included:
- Lobbying and Ethics Rules changes including bans on travel and gifts paid by lobbyists, reforms of the process by which "earmarks" to bills are considered and establishing "pay as you go" budget requirements.
- Increasing the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour over two years.
- Implementing all of the recommendations of the Commission which investigated the attacks on 9/11.
- Expanded Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
- Requiring the Medicare program to negotiate lower prices with drug companies participating in the Medicare prescription drug program.
- Gradually reducing the interest rate on Government subsidized student loans from 6.8% to 3.4% by 2011.
- Repealing about $14 billion in royalties and tax incentives for oil companies and shifting those funds to an alternative energy account to fund renewable energy and energy efficiency.
The 100 hour agenda items have been sent to the Senate where the traditions and rules do not lend themselves to quick consideration of bills with no amendments being allowed from the minority party. Bills that are debated and voted on in the House in a single day can take weeks or months of deliberation in the Senate. George Washington once compared the different functions of the House and Senate to drinking hot coffee and noted that, "We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."
Nevertheless the Senate has begun to make its way through the agenda items. On January 18, after several stalemates on the Senate Floor, it adopted its version of lobbying and ethics rules reform by a vote of 96-2. Over the next several weeks it will consider the minimum wage issue, stem cell research and requiring negotiated drug prices for the Medicare program. In order to avoid a filibuster, the minimum wage bill will probably be joined with a package of tax breaks for small businesses along with targeted tax increases to pay for them. In the near term, both the Senate and House will also debate the Iraq war situation and strategy. Both will consider non binding resolutions expressing disagreement with the President's recently announced strategy to dispatch additional forces to that country.
How much of the 100 hour House agenda will emerge from the Senate and in what form remains to be seen. In the 109th Congress the Republic Senate Leadership with a 55 member majority, often had to produce five or six Democratic votes to invoke cloture to end a filibuster. In this Senate the Democratic Leadership, which controls 51 votes, will have to find at least nine Republicans to join with the Democrats to invoke cloture; a very difficult hurdle. In addition, while President Bush has vetoed only one bill since he entered office he has indicated he will again veto the stem cell bill as he did in the last Congress and pledged to veto the prescription drug bill if it takes the form of the House passed bill.