December 20, 2007

Tastes Great, But Less Filling

The Democrats have ended their first year controlling Congress since 1994, and they now return home with much less self-congratulation than when they arrived triumphantly in January. The taste of success turned bitter when their leadership found they could not get their agenda past a suprisingly resilient opposition, and discovered the hard way that presidents are never irrelevant. Still, they have not learned that they created most of the problems themselves:

Congressional Democrats ended their first year in control of Congress in more than a decade Wednesday, approving a $555-billion government spending measure that gave President Bush $70 billion for an Iraq war they had promised to end.

And underscoring the frustrations that have beset the new majority much of the year, Democratic leaders left the Capitol complaining that much of their agenda had been thwarted by congressional Republicans who repeatedly stopped their most cherished initiatives.

"We could have accomplished so much more," said a rueful Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at a news conference in the old office of a Reid predecessor, Lyndon Johnson.

Despite the more than five dozen Iraq-related votes throughout the year, Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) were never able to muster the support needed to compel the president to begin withdrawing U.S. forces.

They were also forced to renege on their pledge not to add to the federal debt. On Wednesday, the House spared more than 20 million middle-class taxpayers from paying the alternative minimum tax but abandoned any effort to recoup the $50 billion in lost revenue.

And as Democrats scrambled to pull together a budget bill in the face of veto threats from the president and solid GOP opposition on Capitol Hill, they scaled back plans to expand funding for education, Head Start, community health centers and other domestic programs.

Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid never quite adapted to the reality of razor-thin majorities. Instead of attempting to split the Republicans by offering bipartisanship -- which they pledged to do in the 2006 midterms -- they immediately fell back on the same highly partisan tactics used by Republicans and Democrats alike in previous leadership of Congress. They shut out Republcans from the drafting of legislation, stacked the rules to limit amendments from the GOP, and in general acted as if they had a two-thirds majority in both chambers.

They discovered quickly the perils of such an approach. Faced with an inability to work with the majority, the Republicans relied on parliamentary tactics to stall bad bills. They demanded 60-vote supermajorities on dozens of bills, unable to gain access to the legislative process any other way. In the House, where they had less leverage, the Republicans formed a battle line on key issues and attracted conservative Democrats on several occasions to thwart Pelosi.

Nowhere was this more true than on Iraq. At the beginning of the session, some Republicans in both chambers had sympathy for the notion of forcing Bush to limit the scope and length of the mission, especially given the results of the midterms. Had Pelosi and Reid seriously attempted to reach a compromise with these factions in the late winter or early spring, they may have split the GOP and forced Bush into a corner.

Instead, both demanded nothing less than a complete surrender, both figuratively and literally, with Reid declaring defeat from the floor of the Senate. No Republican would sign his or her name to that kind of policy. When Reid tried to hold an all-nighter to embarrass the Republicans, they met him with full force -- and Reid didn't even bother to attend his own pajama party. After that, events in Iraq demonstrated the fecklessness of Democratic military analysis, and even the chief critic of the war, John Murtha, had to admit that the surge has worked.

With every step, the Democratic leadership showed their incompetence. They got bested time and again by a President whose approval ratings remain mired in the mid-30s, but who managed to help push Congress' below his. Incredibly, they still show no signs of having learned anything from their annus horribilus, and unless the Democrats replace them with competent leadership, they can expect a rerun in 2008.


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