Congressional Democrats will have plenty to ponder during the Christmas-New Year recess. For instance, why did things go so badly this fall, and how well did their leaders serve them?
Partisan players will quarrel for months, but objective analysts say the debate must start here: An embattled president made extraordinary use of his veto power and he was backed by GOP lawmakers who may have put their political fortunes at risk.
Also, a new Democratic leadership team overestimated the impact of the Iraq war and the 2006 elections, learning too late they had no tools to force Bush and his allies to compromise on bitterly contested issues.
Both parties seem convinced that voters will reward them 11 months from now. And they agree that Congress’ gridlock and frustration are likely to continue until then — and possibly beyond — unless the narrow party margins in the House and Senate change appreciably.
In a string of setbacks last week, Democratic leaders in Congress yielded to Bush and his GOP allies on Iraqi war funding, tax and health policies, energy policy and spending decisions affecting billions of dollars throughout the government.
The concessions stunned many House and Senate Democrats, who saw the 2006 elections as a mandate to redirect the war and Bush’s domestic priorities. Instead, they found his goals unchanged and his clout barely diminished.
Facing a Democratic-run Congress after six years of GOP control, Bush repeatedly turned to actual or threatened vetoes, which can be overridden only by highly elusive two-thirds majority votes in both congressional chambers.
Bush’s reliance on veto threats was so remarkable that “it’s hard to say there are precedents for it,” said Steve Hess, a George Washington University government professor whose federal experience began in the Eisenhower administration.
Previous presidents used veto threats more sparingly, Hess said, partly because they hoped to coax later concessions from an opposition-run Congress. But with the demise of major Bush initiatives such as revamping Social Security and immigration laws, Hess said, “you’ve got a president who doesn’t want anything” in his final year.
Bush’s scorched-earth strategy may prove riskier for Republicans who backed him, Hess said. Signs point to likely Democratic victories in the presidential and many congressional races next year, he said.
That is the keen hope of Congress’ Democratic leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. They have admitted that Bush’s intransigence on the war surprised them, as did the unbroken loyalty shown to him by most House and Senate Republicans.
Empowered by Bush’s veto threats, Republican lawmakers rejected Democratic efforts to wind down the war, impose taxes on the wealthy to offset middle-class tax cuts, roll back tax breaks on oil companies to help promote renewable energy and conservation, and greatly expand federal health care for children.
Pelosi on Friday cited “reckless opposition from the president and Republicans in Congress” in defending her party’s modest achievements.
Americans remain mostly against the war, though increasingly pleased with recent reductions in violence and casualties, an AP-Ipsos poll showed earlier this month. While a steady six in 10 have long said the 2003 invasion was a mistake, the public is now about evenly split over whether the U.S. is making progress in Iraq.
Opposition to the war is especially strong among the Democratic Party’s liberal base. Some lawmakers say Pelosi and Reid should have told those liberal activists to accept more modest changes in Iraq, tax policies and spending, in the name of political reality.
“They never learned to accept the art of the possible,” said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., a former majority leader who is partisan but willing to work with Democrats. “They kept going right up to the limit and exceeding it, making it possible for us to defeat them, over and over again,” Lott said in an interview.
He cited the Democrats’ failed efforts to add billions of dollars to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which Bush vetoed twice because of the proposed scope and cost. A somewhat smaller increase was possible, Lott said, but Democrats refused to negotiate with moderate Republicans until it was too late.
“They thought, ‘We’re going to win on the politics, we’ll stick it to Bush,”‘ Lott said. “That’s not the way things happen around here.”
Some Democrats say House GOP leaders would have killed any bid to forge a veto-proof margin on the children’s health bill. But others say the effort was clumsily handled in the House, where key Democrats at first ignored, and later selectively engaged, rank-and-file Republicans whose support they needed.
Some Washington veterans say Democrats, especially in the ostentatiously polite Senate, must fight more viciously if they hope to turn public opinion against GOP obstruction tactics. With Democrats holding or controlling 51 of the 100 seats, Republicans repeatedly thwart their initiatives by threatening filibusters, which require 60 votes to overcome.
Democrats should force Republicans into all-day and all-night sessions for a week or two, said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar for the right-of-center think tank American Enterprise Institute. The tactic wouldn’t change senators’ votes, he said, but it might build public awareness and resentment of GOP obstructionists in a way that a one-night talkfest cannot.
To date, Reid has resisted such ideas, which would anger and inconvenience some Democratic senators as well as Republicans.