Weary, Wary Lawmakers See Compromise as Way Forward

United by a desire to demonstrate progress, lawmakers from both parties have come to the negotiating table. From left are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sens. Max Baucus, Charles Grassley and John D. Rockefeller IV.
United by a desire to demonstrate progress, lawmakers from both parties have come to the negotiating table. From left are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sens. Max Baucus, Charles Grassley and John D. Rockefeller IV. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

For most of the year, congressional Democrats have been uncompromising on issues including the Iraq war and expanded health insurance for poor children, believing that public opinion favored them and that Republicans would break with President Bush. But the GOP held firm and Congress's approval ratings plummeted.

Now, the dynamic may be changing.

Over the weekend, Democratic leaders were joined by staffers from the GOP leadership to discuss expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. By midweek, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the committee's ranking Republican, hope to unveil changes to the House version of the bill that have the blessing of the Republican and Democratic leadership.

Those negotiations come after new bipartisan efforts on the war and attempts to put controls on the president's warrantless wiretapping program. After Democrats failed throughout the summer to establish a timetable for bringing troops home, Democrats and Republicans got behind a more modest plan to force the Bush administration to present plans to Congress for troop withdrawals. After that bill passed the House earlier this month, 377 to 46, a Senate coalition emerged to advance the legislation. The coalition includes Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), James Webb (D-Va.), George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.).

And as Democratic leaders push their own legislation to rein in the wiretapping program, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) has been quietly exploring avenues of compromise with Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee. Centrist Democrats hope those talks can dovetail with the Senate intelligence committee's own bipartisan measure on surveillance of suspected terrorists.

"When you have these wars of the roses, it's the side in charge that has to take the first step to de-escalate," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, whose book "The Broken Branch" criticized the partisan warfare that afflicted Republican-controlled Congresses. "They need to reap a richer legislative harvest than they've gotten so far," he said.

Neither Republican nor Democratic leadership aides were ready to hail a new era of cross-party cooperation. Democratic aides said they fear aides to Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) have pushed their way into talks on the children's health bill to block a deal with wavering Republicans, not seal one. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee unveiled its fourth round of radio ads yesterday, attacking Republicans who have voted against the health bill.

Likewise, Republican aides were not convinced Democrats are negotiating in good faith.

"It still remains to be seen whether this will be anything other than perfunctory," said one senior Republican leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because participants in the negotiations agreed not to speak to the media for fear of upsetting the talks.

On Iraq, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) continues to stand in the way of what he sees as "half-measures," although Reid spokesman Jim Manley pointedly said the senator could not stop incremental Iraq bills that are offered as amendments to other legislation.

But for Democratic leaders, the need to show they can govern may now be overwhelming the fear that too much compromise will anger their liberal base. With Congress's approval ratings scraping record lows, Democratic leaders last week launched a "message" campaign, imploring members to tell their constituents that progress is being made and that more will be coming.

"Nancy has really inculcated a notion of creating a better Congress, and Steny is a natural legislator, but none of them has been willing to say to their bases, 'Never mind what you think, we're going to make a better Congress,' " said Norman Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar, who co-wrote "The Broken Branch." Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is the speaker of the House, and Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) is the House majority leader.

The breaking point may have come Thursday, when Democratic leaders brought to the House floor a slightly revised bill to expand SCHIP by $35 billion over five years. Republicans cried foul, saying the vote was unfair because they had no time to review the measure and because several of their members were out of town, touring fire damage in Southern California. Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) suggested holding the debate Thursday and a vote Monday night, a timetable that would have no impact on Senate consideration.

But Democratic leaders refused to budge. Rather than winning the dozen or so additional Republican votes they needed to override a presidential veto, they lost two GOP votes, including the vote of Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), who said he had switched sides to protest the Democratic strong arm.

Democratic leaders continue to defend their decision, saying no Republican had told them he or she would have voted for the bill if the vote was delayed. Nonetheless, that blowup led to weekend talks that showed a new willingness to at least listen to Republican leaders.

The revised SCHIP bill was supposed to establish a firm eligibility cap, limiting coverage to families with incomes at 300 percent of the poverty level, about $62,000 for a family of four. But Republican leaders complained that the bill's cap would allow families to exclude certain expenditures, such as clothing, transportation and child care, when figuring their eligibility.

The talks, which continued yesterday, were focused on limiting such income "set-asides," according to Republican aides involved in the negotiations.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company