By Deirdre Shesgreen
The first session of the 110th Congress started off with a snap and had plenty of crackle. But the end was more fizzle than pop.
“We had 50 weeks of basically polarization and brinksmanship and two weeks of problem-solving,” said Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country.
Democrats were catapulted into power after the 2006 elections on big promises: They would clean up Washington, change course in Iraq and devote new attention to domestic needs.
But as lawmakers rushed home for the holidays last week, Republicans were declaring victory for confounding their political foes at almost every turn, with one GOP lawmaker deriding this as the “cave-in Congress.”
Even as Democrats trumpeted some meaty achievements – from ethics reform to a minimum-wage increase to a landmark energy bill – their liberal base was fuming over some of the concessions Democrats made.
After bruising battles with the White House and congressional Republicans, Democrats swallowed three bitter pills in the final days of the year:
– They handed President George W. Bush $70 billion in funding for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with no strings attached.
– They passed a flat extension of a children’s health insurance program – something the GOP had been calling for, for months – after conceding that their efforts to expand the popular program could not overcome Bush’s vetoes.
– They approved an 11th-hour, $50 billion tax fix that will shield the middle class from a major tax increase, but without raising additional revenue – violating their self-imposed vow to offset any new spending or tax breaks so as not to worsen the deficit.
“Our members probably went home yesterday happier than … in the 11 years I’ve been here,” said House GOP Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Congress’ final weeks were so chaotic that many lawmakers booked multiple flights home because they had no idea when last votes would be cast on a $555 billion omnibus budget loaded with more than 8,000 of lawmakers’ pet projects.
Where Akin saw polarization and brinksmanship, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., saw idealism and pragmatism, and she said the Senate had “a healthy dose of both this year,” making for bitter fights as well as solid, albeit last-minute, agreements.
“At the end of the day it’s not bad what we got done in spite of ourselves,” she said. But the process “sure isn’t pretty.”
Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University, said that with Democrats barely in control of the Senate and a Republican in the White House, “there was essentially a stalemate” on all major legislative initiatives. “This was a situation where both parties had the ability to veto the highest priorities of the other.”
He said the 49-member Republican minority in the Senate used threats of a filibuster to protect Bush from embarrassing vetoes on Iraq and other matters. In the process, he said, they were able to make the Democrats look bad “for not governing an institution they seemed to control.”
The messy ending to the first half of this Congress stands out all the more because of its sharp beginning.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the first woman to be speaker of the House, swept into office with a 100-hour legislative blitz. With the help of moderate Republicans, Democrats racked up a raft of early victories: cutting interest rates on student loans, enacting long-stalled recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, and raising the minimum wage, among other things.
“Those are issues that the American people wanted to see us address, and we did,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. “And we became more fiscally responsible than previous Congresses and this administration.”
Indeed, some Republicans found themselves cheering the Democrats’ final spending package as one that was much better than any they ever produced. Bush forced Democrats to stick to his bottom line, something he never did when the GOP was in control, rather than allow them to add $22 billion in new spending.
“We’re leaving with Bush’s numbers plus some emergency spending for things we can support,” such as veterans care, said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville. With that new financial restraint, he said, “we’re going back to our base in a Democratic majority. … That’s a pretty good Christmas present.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the budget deal was “really a heartbreak” because Democrats wanted desperately to boost spending for health care, education and other programs they felt have been ignored. Democrats did shift money to fill some of their priorities but failed to force Bush to agree to a higher overall budget number.
WHITE HOUSE POWER
Durbin said Democrats had no options in the budget showdown because they simply did not have the votes to override Bush’s threatened veto.
“In the end there was only one card that could be played: the Newt Gingrich government shut-down card,” Durbin said, referring to the standoff between the former GOP House speaker and President Bill Clinton that led to government offices being shuttered and a political fallout for the GOP. “We were never going to let that happen, and the president knew it,” Durbin said.
Democrats also saw the collapse of a sweeping and controversial immigration reform package. They failed to override Bush’s veto of a bill to lift restrictions on government funding for stem cell research. And most irksome to their liberal supporters, they failed to win a raft of Iraq votes that would have imposed withdrawal timetables for U.S. troops or restricted war funding.
Pelosi said Congress had “put a lot of pressure on the administration” over the war through “very intense oversight.” But, she conceded, “No one is more disappointed with the fact that we couldn’t change that (the course of the war) than I am.”
Pelosi said she and other Democrats made one miscalculation on that front: They underestimated the GOP’s willingness to rally behind an unpopular president on an unpopular issue.
Republicans said they were unified against the Democrats’ “slow-bleed” strategy for Iraq.
Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo., said Democrats spent “an awful lot of time redoing” varying Iraq votes to send “a message to their extreme left-wing base.” Now that the United States is seeing some military progress in Iraq, he said, “I think we’ll see them temper their political efforts” on the war.
SETTING UP FOR ’08
But that’s unlikely when Congress reconvenes next month.
“We will keep pushing the president to come up with withdrawal dates, with benchmarks, with time lines, and he will resist all of it,” Clay said. “So it’ll be a test of wills again.”
At the same time, Democrats said they hoped to shine a brighter spotlight on some new domestic issues. Pelosi said health care would be front and center, along with legislation to address global warming.
Durbin said he expected a major push on economic issues and the mortgage crisis in particular.
But others said the main issue on the agenda would be politics. With next year’s presidential race and congressional elections at full throttle, there will be “more of the same” gridlock, said Smith, the Washington University professor.
“Legislative accomplishments will not be their chief goal,” he said. “Setting themselves up for 2008 will be.”
Megan Boehnke of the Post-Dispatch Washington bureau contributed to this story.