By Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 20, 2007
The first Democratic-led Congress in a dozen years limped out of Washington last night with a lengthy list of accomplishments, from the first increase in fuel-efficiency standards in a generation to the first minimum-wage hike in a decade.
But Democrats' failure to address the central issues that swept them to power left even the most partisan of them dissatisfied and Congress mired at a historic low in public esteem.
Handed control of Congress last year after making promises to end the war in Iraq, restore fiscal discipline in Washington and check President Bush's powers, Democrats instead closed the first session of the 110th Congress yesterday with House votes that sent Bush $70 billion in war funding, with no strings attached, and a $50 billion alternative-minimum-tax measure that shattered their pledge not to add to the federal budget deficit.
"I'm not going to let a lot of hard work go unnoticed, but I'm not going to hand out party hats, either," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.).
On Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said yesterday: "Nobody is more disappointed with the fact that we couldn't change that than I am." But Pelosi was not about to accept Republican assertions that her first year as speaker has been unsuccessful, saying: "Almost everything we've done has been historic."
Unable to garner enough votes from their own party, House Democratic leaders had to turn to Republicans to win passage of a $555 billion domestic spending bill after the Senate appended $70 billion to it for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war funding passed 272 to 142, with Democrats voting 141 to 78 against it.
The Democratic leaders again had to appeal to Republicans to win passage of a measure to stave off the growth of the alternative minimum tax, because fiscally conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats were in open revolt and refused to go along. The Blue Dogs insisted that the Senate offset the bill's cost with tax increases on hedge-fund and private-equity managers.
Needing two-thirds of the House to pass under fast-track rules, the tax measure was approved 352 to 64, with all 64 "no" votes coming from Democrats standing by their pledge not to support any tax cut or mandatory spending increase that would expand the national debt.
The year's finale angered the entire spectrum of the Democratic coalition, from the antiwar left to new Southern conservatives who helped bring Democrats to power last year.
"This is a blank check," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). "The new money in this bill represents one cave-in too many. It is an endorsement of George Bush's policy of endless war."
Still, the Democrats delivered much of what they promised last year. Of the six initiatives on the their "Six for '06" agenda, congressional Democrats sent five to the president and got his signature on four: a minimum-wage increase, implementation of the homeland security recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, college cost reduction, and an energy measure that requires conservation and the expanded use of renewable sources of energy.
Federal funding for stem cell research was vetoed by Bush.
Congress also boosted spending on veterans' needs. Just yesterday, Democrats unveiled a proposal to create the first nonpartisan ethics review panel in House history and passed the most significant gun-control legislation since the early 1990s, tightening the instant background-check process.
Beyond those, Democrats secured the biggest overhaul of ethics and lobbying rules since the Watergate scandal. And they passed a slew of measures that have received little notice, such as more money for math and science teachers who earn more credentials in their field, tax relief for homeowners in foreclosure, a doubling of basic research funding, and reclamation projects for the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast.
With the exception of the new energy law, Pelosi characterized most of the year's accomplishments as a cleanup after years of Republican neglect or congressional gridlock.
But the long-awaited showdown with Bush on the federal budget fizzled this week into an uncomfortable draw. The president got his war funding, while Democrats -- using "emergency" funding designations -- broke through his spending limit by $11 billion, the amount they had promised to add after Republicans rejected a proposed $22 billion increase in domestic spending.
Remarkably, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) praised the final omnibus spending bill in glowing terms, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called keeping federal spending at Bush's preferred level "an extraordinary success."
"Our work on holding the line on spending gave us an omnibus that is better than I've seen in my 17 years here," Boehner said yesterday. Twelve of those years were spent under Republican rule.
But the disappointments have dominated the news, in large part because Democrats failed on some of the issues that they had put front and center, and that their key constituents value most.
The military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains open. Bush's warrantless surveillance program was actually codified and expanded on the Democrats' watch. Lawmakers were unable to eliminate the use of harsh interrogation tactics by the CIA.
Democratic leaders also could not overcome the president's vetoes on an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, despite winning over large numbers of Republicans. Policies that liberals thought would be swept aside under the Democratic majority remain untouched, including a prohibition on U.S. funding for international family-planning organizations that offer abortions.
Efforts to change Bush's Iraq policies took on the look of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. From the first days of the 110th Congress to its last hours this week, Bush prevailed on every Iraq-related fight, beginning with February's nonbinding resolution opposing the winter troop buildup and ending with this week's granting of $70 billion in unrestricted war funds. Emanuel tried to call the $70 billion funding a partial Democratic victory because it was the first time the president did not get everything he sought for the war. Bush had requested $200 billion.
Some senior Democrats have grown so distraught that they do not expect any significant change in Iraq policy unless a Democrat wins the White House in 2008. "It's unfortunate that we may have to wait till the elections," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) said yesterday.
This has left many Democrats resorting to openly political arguments, picking up a theme that Republicans hurled at them -- obstructionism -- during their many years in the minority. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) conceded that it is time for Democrats to forget about trumpeting accomplishments that voters will never give them credit for -- and time to change the message to a starkly political one: If you want change, elect more Democrats.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the Senate Democratic whip tasked with trying to find 60 votes for a filibuster-proof majority, acknowledged this week that Democrats' biggest failure stemmed from expecting "more Republicans to take an independent stance" on Iraq. Instead, most of them stood with Bush.
"Many of them will have to carry that with them into the election," Durbin said.