Democrats promise changes in Iraq, higher minimum wage

WASHINGTON – Restored to power, congressional Democrats pledged Wednesday to press for a new course in Iraq and move promptly to raise the minimum wage. “We will not disappoint” the American people, said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, speaker-in-waiting.

At a news conference in the Capitol, Pelosi pledged that Democrats will make the next Congress “the most honest, ethical and open” one in history.

She made her comments with the extent of the Democrats’ triumph in Tuesday’s midterm elections still unclear.

Several House races remained too close to call, and the size of the new Democratic majority seemed likely to grow by a few seats. The battle for Senate control hinged on the outcome of a tight Virginia election. There, Democrat Jim Webb led Republican Sen. George Allen by more than 7,000 votes as state election officials canvassed the returns.

Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada both said they would work with President Bush in a bipartisan manner, and made the same commitment with respect to congressional Republicans.

“If Democrats go in and seek retribution, we lose,” agreed Sen.-elect Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who defeated two-term Sen. Mike DeWine.

At the same time, Democrats made clear they intend to use their power.

Several Democrats suggested during the day that Bush meet with leaders to conduct a high-level review of the war in Iraq, a conflict that is unpopular with the public and that polls said had contributed to the Republicans’ electoral defeats.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., in line to take back the chairmanship of one powerful committee, told reporters he wants the Federal Communications Commission to hold off on its vote on AT&T Inc.’s proposed acquisition of BellSouth Corp.

Dingell said the acquisition raises a “significant antitrust question,” and sent a letter to the FCC asking that it hold off on the vote until after the new Congress convenes in January.

“I think it would be in their interest, I think it would be in the interest of the committee and I think it would be in the interest of the public,” he said.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., in line to head the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, declined to discuss possible tax increases or changes in Medicare in an interview with reporters.

He said his top priority was to close the tax gap _ referring to money that taxpayers owe the government but do not pay. “My only fear is that Republicans might call this an increase in taxes,” he said.

He also criticized an IRS program that makes use of private tax collectors rather than government employees to seek taxes owed. “I think it is terrible for taxpayers to believe they are going to be hounded by the same kind of debt collectors,” he added.

The minimum wage increase is one of a handful of measures Pelosi had promised to bring to the floor of the House in the first 100 hours it is in session under Democratic control next January.

Republican congressional leaders have maneuvered successfully to block passage of a minimum wage increase in recent years, but voters in six states approved ballot measures on Tuesday mandating raises. “When Washington doesn’t act, then America does,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who would become chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over the issue if his party wins the Senate.

The current federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. Legislation backed by Democrats in the House and Senate would increase it to $7.25 in three steps, although Pelosi has not yet said precisely what bill she intends to bring to a vote.

Pelosi, following up on a campaign promise, said Democrats would seek passage of several bills in the first days of the new session.

In addition to the minimum wage hike, Democrats will push to implement the recommendations of the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and a reduction in the interest rate on student loans. Other items include legislation to promote energy independence, allow expanded stem cell research with federal funds and a call for lower drug prices under the Medicare prescription drug program.

Apart from a legislative agenda, Democrats awoke to a leadership election. While Pelosi’s selection as speaker is unlikely to be contested, two senior Democrats maneuvered for election as majority leader.

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