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Congress is off to a bipartisan start, but tougher tests lie ahead

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After a bitterly fought midterm election, Democrats controlling the new Congress pledged to transcend partisanship and tackle the big problems that concern Americans. Then, something happened that neither Washington insiders nor, probably, even the voters expected: Lawmakers began acting as if they meant it.

In the 110th Congress's first 100 legislative hours, which wrapped up Thursday, House Democrats drew a significant number of GOP votes on their "Six for '06" agenda, despite giving minority Republicans little voice in shaping the legislation.

A rule change to overhaul lobbying and ethics reform cleared the House on a nearly unanimous vote. A bill to enact additional antiterror recommendations of the 9/11 commission pulled 68 GOP votes. Eighty-two Republicans helped pass the first increase in the federal minimum wage in nine years; 37 Republicans supported expanding federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research; and 124 members of the GOP caucus joined Democrats to gradually cut interest rates in half on student loans.

At the same time, Democrats in the House and Senate scrambled this week to find partners on the other side of the aisle to challenge the White House over its conduct of the Iraq war. On Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska became the first Republican to formally break with the Bush White House, by supporting a bipartisan resolution opposing the president's plan to send more US troops.

Heeding the voters

The bipartisan, problem-solving mantra is one that lawmakers of both stripes say they took straight from voters in the midterm election. "The message in the last election was a resounding repudiation of the status quo and partisanship that had poisoned the ability of Congress to develop solutions," says Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine. "People are demanding government and results. People were so disaffected, and that really has been a galvanizing force toward bipartisanship."

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