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Democrats plan as confidence grows

Minimum wage targeted in House takeover scenario

WASHINGTON -- Democratic leaders, increasingly confident they will seize control of the House in November, are laying plans for a legislative blitz during their first week in power that would raise the minimum wage, roll back parts of the Republican prescription drug law, implement homeland security measures, and reinstate lapsed budget deficit controls.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in interviews that a Democratic House would launch investigations of the Bush administration, beginning with the White House's first-term energy task force and probably including the use of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Pelosi denied Republican allegations that a Democratic House would move quickly to impeach President Bush. ''You never know where the facts take you . . . but that is not what we are about," Pelosi said yesterday on NBC's ''Meet the Press."

''Investigation does not equate to impeachment," she said. ''Investigation is the requirement of Congress. It is about checks and balances."

In recent days, Democratic confidence has been buoyed by polls indicating that not only is Bush growing increasingly unpopular, so are Republicans in Congress. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Friday found that 33 percent of the public approves of Bush's job performance, the lowest rating of his presidency. And 25 percent approves of the job Congress is doing, a figure comparable to congressional approval ratings before the 1994 elections that swept Republicans to power.

The AP-Ipsos poll found that 51 percent of Americans say they want Democrats rather than Republicans to control Congress. Thirty-four percent favor Republican control.

''We have to be ready to win, and we have to tell [voters] what we will do when we win," Pelosi said.

Republicans say Democratic leaders run the risk of looking overconfident, if not foolish, in predicting that they will win the 15 net seats necessary to take the House. Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said similar pronouncements ahead of the 2000 election helped cost former House minority leader Richard Gephardt, Democrat of Missouri, his leadership post.

''If they fall short [of control], she's going to be severely damaged," Forti said of Pelosi.

But Democratic planning runs parallel to similar efforts 12 years ago, when GOP leaders were plotting a return to control after 42 years. By May 1994, Republicans had the outlines of a legislative agenda that would become their ''Contract With America," said Richard Armey, who was then chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Republicans then needed to pick up 40 seats, something most analysts considered virtually impossible six months before the election.

Democrats need to pick up 15, a task that many analysts believe is a long shot. Democratic leaders do not.

''We are more and more confident that we are going to have the responsibility of leading the House, so we have to prepare," said House minority whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

Despite waves of redistricting that have solidified the positions of incumbents from both parties, Pelosi said 50 Republican seats are in play, while fewer than 10 Democratic seats face strong challenges. That figure of GOP seats is disputed by independent analysts, but even the most cautious estimates put more than 15 Republican seats in jeopardy.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said his most expansive estimate classifies 52 seats as ''unsafe," 40 of them Republican, 12 of them Democratic. But he said only a tidal wave would dislodge the incumbent party from many of those seats, and, more realistically, 30 Republican seats and five Democratic districts are vulnerable.

Armey said to seize control in 1994, Republicans needed three key ingredients: scandal, which was provided by House members' abuse of the House bank and postal system; a policy fiasco, provided by the Clinton administration's failed national healthcare plan; and a coherent plan of action, which came with the ''Contract With America."

This year, the House is engulfed in bribery and influence-peddling scandals that have forced the resignation of former House majority leader Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, sent Randy ''Duke" Cunningham, former representative and Republican of California, to jail, and yielded guilty pleas from two former DeLay aides and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

But those scandals also have ensnared a Democrat, Representative William Jefferson of Louisiana.

The war in Iraq has provided a policy debacle at least on par with the healthcare issue, Armey said. But Democrats cannot offer policy alternatives because Americans remain leery of their prescriptions for an activist government and higher taxes, he said. To counter that perception, House Democrats have formulated a plan of action for their first week in control.

Their leaders said a Democratic House would vote quickly to raise the minimum wage for the first time since 1997. It would roll back a provision in the Republicans' Medicare prescription drug benefit that prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services from negotiating prices for drugs offered under the program.

It would vote to fully implement the recommendations of the bipartisan panel convened to shore up homeland security in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and it would reinstate lapsed rules that say any tax cuts or spending increases have to be offset by spending cuts or tax increases to prevent the federal deficit from growing.

Armey dismissed the substance of the Democratic proposals as demagoguery, but said that the politics ''really, frankly, are not too bad."

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