Democrats' Momentum Is Stalling

By Jonathan Weisman and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 5, 2007

In the heady opening weeks of the 110th Congress, the Democrats' domestic agenda appeared to be flying through the Capitol: Homeland security upgrades, a higher minimum wage and student loan interest rate cuts all passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

But now that initial progress has foundered as Washington policymakers have been consumed with the debate over the Iraq war. Not a single priority on the Democrats' agenda has been enacted, and some in the party are growing nervous that the "do nothing" tag they slapped on Republicans last year could come back to haunt them.

"We cannot be a one-trick pony," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who helped engineer his party's takeover of Congress as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "People voted for change, but Iraq, the economy and Washington, D.C., [corruption] all tied for first place. We need to do them all."

The "Six for '06" policy agenda on which Democrats campaigned last year was supposed to consist of low-hanging fruit, plucked and put in the basket to allow Congress to move on to tougher targets. House Democrats took just 10 days to pass a minimum-wage increase, a bill to implement most of the homeland security recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, a measure allowing federal funding for stem cell research, another to cut student-loan rates, a bill allowing the federal government to negotiate drug prices under Medicare, and a rollback of tax breaks for oil and gas companies to finance alternative-energy research.

The Senate struck out on its own, with a broad overhaul of the rules on lobbying Congress.

Not one of those bills has been signed into law. President Bush signed 16 measures into law through April, six more than were signed by this time in the previous Congress. But beyond a huge domestic spending bill that wrapped up work left undone by Republicans last year, the list of achievements is modest: a beefed-up board to oversee congressional pages in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal, and the renaming of six post offices, including one for Gerald R. Ford in Vail, Colo., as well as two courthouses, including one for Rush Limbaugh Sr. in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

The minimum-wage bill got stalled in a fight with the Senate over tax breaks to go along with the wage increase. In frustration, Democratic leaders inserted a minimum-wage agreement into a bill to fund the Iraq war, only to see it vetoed.

Similar homeland security bills were passed by the House and the Senate, only to languish as attention shifted to the Iraq debate. Last week, family members of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, gathered in Washington to demand action.

"We've waited five and a half years since 9/11," said Carie Lemack, whose mother died aboard one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. "We waited three years since the 9/11 commission. We can't wait anymore."

House and Senate staff members have begun meeting, with the goal of reporting out a final bill by Memorial Day, but they concede that the deadline is likely to slip, in part because members of the homeland security committees of both chambers, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the two intelligence committees all want their say. The irony, Lemack said, is that such cumbersomeness is precisely why the Sept. 11 commission recommended the creation of powerful umbrella security committees with such broad jurisdiction that other panels could not muscle their way in. That was one recommendation Congress largely disregarded.

The Medicare drug-negotiations bill died in the Senate, after Republicans refused to let it come up for debate. House Democrats are threatening to attach the bill to must-pass government funding bills.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has proposed his own student-loan legislation, but it is to be part of a huge higher-education bill that may not reach the committee until June.

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