The Democrats' Agenda

If Democrats take back the House in next week's election, they will have organized labor to thank to a large degree -- and labor interests, after spending $35 million to get their traditional allies back in power, will be looking for a return on that dollar.

AFL-CIO chief lobbyist Peggy Taylor said pension reform legislation should be a top priority. "We will, down the road, have a pension proposal," she said, with the goal of a more equitable share of investment between employers and employees in retirement plans. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., in line to become become chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, told CongressDaily he would take action to "make certain that employees' retirement plans cannot get raided," which he accused Republicans of plotting to do. Meanwhile, the perennial striker replacement controversy would be something of a non-issue with Democrats in control -- because they would have a large enough majority to block recent GOP efforts to overturn President Clinton's executive order barring federal contractors from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers.

Other areas of interest to organized labor fall into the jurisdiction of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, whose name Democrats would change back to the Education and Labor Committee. Under the chairmanship of current Economic and Educational Opportunities ranking member William Clay, D-Mo., the committee would re-introduce job training consolidation legislation, doomed at the end of the 104th Congress by Republican infighting and presidential politics.

"That's very important. That will be one of the things on the agenda," said Mark Zuckerman, press secretary for committee Democrats. Although the Clinton administration supported the legislation's underlying block grant approach, education sources said this week they have been told by administration officials the president would no longer support a block grant of federal job-training programs. A Democratic-controlled Congress, then, would be more likely to push a reauthorization bill for the existing programs, even if it consolidates some of them.

Zuckerman also said Democrats would introduce an expanded "family leave" measure, although the details of that plan are unclear. When the compromise on family leave was struck two years ago, labor and other proponents complained too many small businesses were exempted and too little leave was allowed. Democrats also will make a top priority legislation to strengthen work provisions and tame other provisions of the welfare reform bill signed by Clinton.

On education, the panel would work to pass five education initiatives proposed already by Clinton, Zuckerman said. At an estimated cost of $52 billion over six years, the bulk of the proposal involves so-called HOPE scholarships worth $1,500 in tuition assistance for students in their first year of full-time college and their second year if they maintain at least a "B" average.

Zuckerman said Democrats would make a strong commitment to retaining the direct student loan program, but it is unclear whether a Democratic-controlled House would try to expand the program. He said higher funding levels for education in general would be a priority.

Even if Democrats hold only a slim majority, they will be better equipped to beat back such GOP-led efforts as the attempt in the 104th Congress to abolish Goals 2000, a top initiative of the Clinton administration. Republicans, however, were not successful and funding levels in line with the president's request were eventually approved.

So-called work study programs would also likely be a big part of the Democrats' agenda. Education sources expect Democrats would try to push legislation to require half of all work study funds to go toward community service programs.

On the transportation front, Congress will write a new surface transportation bill next year, and if Democrats are in charge, one aide said they would want to preserve the flexibility of the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act that allows states to spend federal money on transportation needs other than highways.

Aides in both parties said they expect current Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member James Oberstar, D-Minn., to continue the panel's bipartisan tradition. One major piece of transportation legislation left hanging by the 104th Congress would privatize Amtrak. Democrats would have little problem moving that bill or other similar legislation that -- like the Amtrak bill -- got hung up over labor disputes. Even under GOP control, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee had enough votes to approve the Amtrak bill with a controversial labor provision attached. Oberstar also would try to move a comprehensive rail safety bill, which he introduced in the past Congress.

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