Veto threat as Democrats plan whirlwind of reforms

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The new Democrat-controlled 110th Congress convenes today, with plans for a "100-hour" whirlwind of legislation to seize the political initiative before President George Bush delivers his State of the Union address later this month.

Today's ceremonies on Capitol Hill will see several novelties, including the formal election of Nancy Pelosi as the first female Speaker of the House in US history, and the swearing-in of Keith Ellison, who will represent a Minnesota district as America's first Muslim member of Congress. He will take the oath on the Koran - or, more precisely, an English translation of the Koran that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, the third US president.

The biggest novelty of all however, is that George Bush will for the first time be facing a House and Senate both run by the Democrats, setting the stage for almost inevitable confrontation between the White House and the legislature for the last two years of Mr Bush's final term.

As the two sides made their final preparations for the new session, both made symbolic appeals for bipartisanship and co-operation in the public good.

"The next two years can be fruitful ones," Mr Bush wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "We can show people that Republicans and Democrats can come together." Speaking after meeting with his cabinet yesterday on the eve of the new Congress, he urged Democrats to help rein in government spending through the practice of "earmarks", whereby spending projects are secretly slipped into legislation without scrutiny. He also followed several of his predecessors in asking for a "line item veto", allowing him to veto such individual clauses of a measure without killing the entire bill.

But he warned: "If the Congress chooses to pass bills that are simply political statements, they will have chosen stalemate" - a clear threat that he would use his veto to block bills he does not like. With only small majorities in both chambers, the Democrats have no chance of assembling the two-thirds majority required to overrule him. Indeed, the veto shadow hangs over the raft of measures that Ms Pelosi intends to push through the House in its first 100 hours of business in the next two weeks.

They include relatively uncontroversial items such as tighter ethics rules for Congressmen in the wake of recent lobbying scandals, and an increase in the minimum wage from $5.75 (£3) to $7.25 per hour - the first such boost since 1997, and a plan Mr Bush has signalled he will not oppose.

Other proposals are almost certain to run into White House objections, among them a vote on expanding embryonic stem cell research, an idea that has wide public support but which Mr Bush blocked in 2005 on the only occasion he has wielded the veto in his six years in office.

Equally uncertain is the fate of the Democrats' plan to vote down a ban on the government negotiating with the politically powerful pharmaceutical companies to lower drug prices under the Medicare public health programme.

The "100 hour" initiative will also be an early test of how the Democrats intend to run Congress after 12 years in the minority when they were increasingly cut out of the legislative process. During the mid-term campaign, Ms Pelosi and her colleagues promised to give a Republican minority a greater say in shaping legislation. However, many Democrats want the party to give as good as it got.

One thing that will not change is the rules for television coverage of the House, which is currently limited to close-up images of floor speeches. The rules do not allow panning shots that would show that, in 99 cases out of 100, the speeches were made to an empty chamber. C-Span, the network which covers Congress, pleaded for more flexible rules last month.

But Ms Pelosi refused the request, claiming that the present system "best preserved the dignity and decorum" of the House".