October 30, 2007

Trench Warfare On The Hill

The year after winning majorities in both chambers of Congress, the Democrats still have little to show for its victory. The only major partisan goal they have achieved, a minimum-wage increase, had to latch onto Iraq war funding to get the votes to pass. Republicans have grown incensed by heavy-handed tactics such as Harry Reid's publicity-stunt all-nighter on Iraq in July, and the snap vote on the latest S-CHIP bill, which actually cost them one of the Republican moderates who had supported the previous bill:

In a closed-door meeting before the last vote on the children’s health care bill, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer appealed for the support of about 30 wavering Republican lawmakers. What he got instead was a tongue-lashing, participants said.

The GOP lawmakers, all of whom had expressed interest in a bipartisan deal on the SCHIP legislation, were furious that the Democratic leader from Maryland had not reached out to them in a more serious way early on. They also criticized him and Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois for failing to stop his allies outside Congress from running attack ads in their districts, while they were discussing a bipartisan deal. ....

“They spent $1.5 million through their various shill outreach groups attacking me and a handful of my colleagues,” Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) said before the Hoyer meeting, “but they did not spend five minutes to approach me to ask for my vote.”

This us-against-them mentality has been an ongoing storyline of the new Democratic­-controlled Congress. On the big items — Iraq, health care and spending — party leaders have shunned compromise.

That trench warfare may be changing, according to the Washington Post. Republicans and Democrats have begun looking for some common ground to get some legislative efforts completed, not least of which the budget items that have now waited longer than any time in the last twenty years:

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.

Some may feel that standoffs work best for the federal government, but both parties have an investment in making Congress work. With both elective branches plumbing new lows in approval ratings, neither Democrats nor Republicans have much to gain from complete collapse. At some point, it will drive independents and moderates into a force of their own, perhaps in a third-party structure that would really challenge the existing parties' power base.

Voters expect government to work, and elections matter. The Democrats will control legislative agendas, but the White House has the veto. This situation requires communication and compromise, while maintaining philosophical integrity on the goals of their base. That leaves plenty of room for middle ground -- or it least it has for over 200 years until this particular Congress.

At some point, the leadership of both parties will have to start working together, but the Democrats will have to start. They have the most to lose from a do-nothing session. Their base wants to shove agendas down George Bush's throat, but as they have discovered, it doesn't work that way when power is shared between the branches. Republicans have less to lose and therefore less incentive to help the Democrats, but a failure of government to even produce budgets will backfire on everyone.


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