Will it be working families vs. big business?

After a dozen years in the minority, the Democrats are ready to put their stamp on oil, pharma and finance.

By Nina Easton, Fortune Washington bureau chief

(Fortune Magazine) -- Buckle your seatbelt and put your lobbyist on speed dial. The next two years promise a turbulent ride for much of corporate America.

For a dozen years, since Republicans took control of the U.S. House in 1995, the nation's major companies have had a relatively easy run in Washington. But when the curtain goes up on the 110th Congress in January, Democrats will be test-marketing populist story lines for the big prize, the 2008 presidential election.

Through a glass darkly. House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi on Election Night.
The Gang of Six
This cadre of Democratic leaders could unleash hedge fund regulation, corporate investigations, and criminal prosecution for reckless CEOs: a field guide to the new power players in the House and their take on business. - N.E.
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House
Daughter of a Baltimore mayor and the rep for an altruistic San Francisco district, she will be torn between balancing the budget and cutting entitlements.
John Conyers, Judiciary Committee
Prior to the election, the 77-year-old Detroit jazz buff called for Bush's impeachment. Now he'll be hunting abuses of power in corporate America.
John Dingell, Energy and Commerce
The Michigan native will protect the auto industry, but the 80-year-old's committee may go after energy companies for price gouging.
Barney Frank, Financial Services
The 66-year-old wants to dial back SarbOx but he's also expected to push for increased hedge fund regulation and more power for shareholders.
Charles Rangel, Ways and Means
A free-trade supporter during the Clinton years and a Hank Paulson pal, Rangel, 76, could become the go-to Dem to save Bush's fast-track authority.
Henry Waxman, Government Reform
In 1994 the L.A.-born liberal put Big Tobacco on the hot seat. The 67-year-old's hit list includes oil companies and military contractors.

The main one casts working families as protagonists against the diabolical antics of big business. As voters went to the polls on Election Day, House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, 66, foreshadowed her enemies list when she declared, "In 100 hours, the top five oil companies will take in $4.3 billion in profits and the top ten pharmaceutical companies will gain $2.6 billion in profits and the top CEOs will earn an average of $2 million each."

Look for clashes over education and tax cuts. Democratic leaders may complain that Bush's cuts favor the rich. But those reductions in taxes on dividends, capital gains and individual income don't expire until 2010. And there is a presidential election standing between then and now.

Also standing between the newly empowered Democrats and the enacting of major legislation is the White House's veto power, which means that the Democrats' David vs. Goliath drama will play out in congressional committees.

Here lawmakers will grill oil and drug company executives over high prices and allegedly colluding with the Bush administration. CEOs may be asked to defend their seemingly indefensible compensation packages, and military contractors, especially Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer Halliburton (Charts), will face accusations of wasteful spending in Iraq. Both chambers will consider legislation to make corporate executives personally liable for dangerous or defective products sold - a measure that the White House could feel pressure to sign, since some Republicans, including Senator Arlen Specter, support it.

Democrats can also stop progress on free trade. The President's fast-track authority expires next year, and reauthorizing it will be an uphill battle. Even Democrats who supported NAFTA in the 1990s have turned protectionist as their constituents watch jobs and factories drift overseas. "If we don't have an environment where we can approve trade agreements, we cannot compete," says Business Roundtable president John Castellani. "The world will keep moving whether we like it or not."

But with a team of Democratic leaders eager to prove to voters that they are a responsible governing party - worthy of the White House in 2008 - there's also likely to be bipartisan agreement on a handful of economic issues:

  • An increase in the minimum wage. This issue topped the Democratic agenda during the 2006 campaign, and at a post-election press conference President Bush suggested that he was willing to support an increase if it was paired with a measure to help small business. In an interview shortly before Election Day, Bush's economic advisor Al Hubbard didn't close the door on presidential support, noting that he'd have to study the impact on the economy.
  • A plan to legalize 12 million illegal immigrants. Overlooked in the charged immigration debate - a subject that bitterly divided the GOP - is the fact that Democrats and the White House actually agree on the broad outlines of a guest-worker program and path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. "This is an issue where we can find common ground," Bush said. If lawmakers do carve out an agreement, though, employers should expect stiffer verification requirements and sanctions for hiring illegals.
  • Added support for alternative energy. This is a mantra of both Democrats and Bush, who made ending America's "addiction to oil" the centerpiece of his 2006 State of the Union address. "Watch the farm bill become the ethanol bill [next year]," predicts William Miller, political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
  • Sarbanes-Oxley reform. Pelosi is among those Democrats who have raised concerns that the law is too burdensome, particularly for small business. But some executives worry that once the law is opened up, they"ll have to fight off labor-backed efforts to let shareholders vote on compensation.

So what does November's power shift mean for the economy? If history is any guide, says Joseph Quinlan, Bank of America's chief market strategist, divided governments are a boon to stocks. "Gridlock is what the markets want," he says. Long term, though, legislative progress is key: Will the Democratic uprising lead to major structural changes - such as spending and entitlement reform - that support economic growth? That's up to Pelosi and her gang.

Reporter associate Joan L. Levinstein contributed to this article.

Mr. Paulson goes to Washington.

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