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Democrats' Momentum Is Stalling
The House's relatively simple energy bill faces a similar fate. The Senate has in mind a much larger bill that would ease bringing alternative fuels to market, regulate oil and gas futures trading, raise vehicle and appliance efficiency standards, and reform federal royalty payments to finance new energy technologies.
The voters seem to have noticed the stall. An ABC News-Washington Post poll last month found that 73 percent of Americans believe Congress has done "not too much" or "nothing at all." A memo from the Democratic polling firm Democracy Corps warned last month that the stalemate between Congress and Bush over the war spending bill has knocked down the favorable ratings of Congress and the Democrats by three percentage points and has taken a greater toll on the public's hope for a productive Congress.
"The primary message coming out of the November election was that the American people are sick and tired of the fighting and the gridlock, and they want both the president and Congress to start governing the country," warned Leon E. Panetta, a chief of staff in Bill Clinton's White House. "It just seems to me the Democrats, if they fail for whatever reason to get a domestic agenda enacted . . . will pay a price."
Republicans are already trying to extract that price. Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said Democrats are just "trying to score political points on the war. . . . Part of their party can't conceive of anything else to talk about but the war."
Norman J. Ornstein, a Congress watcher at the American Enterprise Institute, said a Congress's productivity is not measured solely on the number of bills signed into law. Bills and resolutions approved by either chamber totaled 165 during the first four months of this Congress, compared with 72 in 2005. And Congress recorded 415 roll-call votes, compared with 264 when Republicans were in charge and the House GOP leaders struggled to impose their agenda on a closely divided Senate.
Democratic leaders remain hopeful that a burst of activity will put the doubts about them to rest. They have promised to pass a war funding bill and a minimum-wage increase that Bush can sign, to complete a budget blueprint and to finish the homeland security bill by Memorial Day. The House wants to pass defense and intelligence bills, its own lobbying measure and the first gun-control legislation since 1994, which would tighten the national instant-check system for gun purchases. The Senate hopes to complete a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee, said his party needs to get some achievements under its belt, but not until voters begin to focus on the campaigns next year. "People understand the Democrats in Congress are doing everything in their power to move an agenda forward, doing everything possible to change direction in the war in Iraq, and the president is standing in the way," he said.
Kyl was not so sanguine. If accomplishments are not in the books by this fall, he said, the Democrats will find their achievements eclipsed by the 2008 presidential race. Panetta agreed.
"This leadership, these Democrats have shown that they can fight," he said. "Now they have to show they can govern."