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Away from shutdown fight, House Democrats press agenda

Published: Wednesday, January 09, 2019 @ 11:00 PM

Overshadowed by the bitter political standoff over funding for border security, which has resulted in a partial government shutdown that has stretched for almost three weeks, Democrats in the House are using their new majority status to press ahead on some of their campaign promises, unveiling major legislation in recent days on ethics in government, voting rights, and gun violence, and setting the stage for action on climate change, and a variety of investigations of the Trump Administration.

"We put power back into the hands of the people," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as she helped to introduce the first major legislation of the 116th Congress, H.R. 1, a sweeping measure on voting rights.

While Democrats could certainly offer up bills on any subject in recent years, grabbing the majority in the 2018 mid-term elections will mean they can not only produce new legislation, but bring it to the floor for action.

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Here's some of the areas where House Democrats are already moving:

1. Reforms on voting, campaign finance, ethics. This 571 page bill from Democrats covers a lot of ground in terms of voting reforms, campaign fundraising changes, and new efforts on ethics in government. In fact, the bill is so comprehensive that the section-by-section summary of the measure runs for 22 pages. The voting reforms include making it easier to register to vote with automatic voter registration, making Election Day a national holiday, not requiring postage for mail-in ballots, blocking purges of voters rolls, efforts to block partisan gerrymandering, and much more. The campaign finance changes include reforms on so-called 'dark money' in elections, stricter rules on politcal action committees, and new processes for the Federal Election Commission. The ethics changes seek to slow the revolving door for members of Congress and lobbyists, new rules for ethics oversight in the Congress, and creates a code of ethics for the Supreme Court (there isn't one right now). The plan would also force a President of the United States to disclose his or her tax returns.

2. Background checks on all gun sales. While the first major bill from Democrats was 571 pages, the bipartisan plan on universal background checks for gun sales runs only six pages in all. This bill would require that in all sales of guns - including private sales - that the buyer go through the instant gun sale check system. "97 percent of Americans support background checks," said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), "and yet we offer thoughts and prayers instead," as Democrats vowed they would press ahead with action on this bill within the first 100 days of 2019. The bill has five Democrats and five Republicans as the official co-sponsors, in an effort to make it bipartisan - but it still drew sharp GOP attacks. "Thankfully this nonsense isn't going anywhere in the Senate," said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who accused Speaker Pelosi of "showboating on gun control." Democrats though believe the atmosphere is changing in Congress when it comes to acting on guns and gun violence. We'll see by Easter if they're really able to bring this bill to a vote in the House - and pass it. "The purpose of this Act is to utilize the current background checks process in the United States to ensure individuals prohibited from gun possession are not able to obtain firearms," the bill states.

3. Climate change and environmental policy. With Republicans out of the majority in the House, Democrats will now get to do more on environmental issues; on their second day in power, they voted to set up a special panel just on climate change in the House, chaired by Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL). Also, look for Democrats to use House committees to question actions by the EPA and Interior Department on offshore oil and gas drilling, pollution regulations, Trump Administration policies on the environment, and more. Just because Democrats are in charge doesn't mean they can force the President to change his policies - but the basic function of oversight will generate headlines and put top Trump officials on the spot at hearings in the Congress in 2019 and 2020.

4. Priming the pump on investigations. While there has been a lot of talk about the Democrats investigating everything imaginable in the Trump Administration, the work of House committees takes a little time to get going in a new Congress, especially with the change in leadership. Democrats have tried to get the Acting Attorney General in for a hearing, but have faced resistance, so now the House Judiciary Committee has told Matthew Whitaker to show up by January 29 for a hearing, as Whitaker evidently wanted to wait to testify until two weeks after the end of the current partial government shutdown. "I cannot accept your proposal," said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), who will be one of the prime point men for Democrats in 2019 in terms of Congressional oversight. More hearings - and subpoenas - are coming.

5. Waiting on Mueller report, Democrats to press on Russia. The new Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), has already made clear that Democrats will likely recall some witnesses, convinced that Republicans didn't push hard enough for answers on possible Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and any ties to the Trump campaign. There were already reports on Wednesday that the first person to get a subpoena would be Donald Trump Jr., as panel member Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) gave that answer during a book signing event in Washington. Schiff has already said he'll make transcripts of earlier interviews available to the Mueller investigation, giving the Special Counsel extra information to review. The Russia investigation is not going away with the Democrats in charge of the House.

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