WASHINGTON – The first Democrat-led Congress in a dozen years limped out of Washington Wednesday 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 Wednesday 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 of Illinois.
On Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday: “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.
Ironically, the Democrats accomplished much of what they had promised last year. Of the six issues on the Democrats “Six for ‘06” agenda, congressional Democrats sent five to the president, and won his signature on four: a minimum wage increase, implementation of the homeland security recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, college cost reduction and an energy law that mandates conservation and the use of more renewable energy.
Federal funding for stem cell research was vetoed.
Congress also boosted spending on veterans’ needs and overhauled ethics and lobbying rules. Just on Wednesday, 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, by tightening the instant background check process.
Beyond that, Democrats secured the biggest overhaul of ethics and lobbying rules since Watergate. And they passed a slew of legislation that has gotten little notice, such as more money for math and science teachers who attain 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.
But the long-awaited showdown with Bush on the federal budget fizzled this week at an uncomfortable draw. The president got his war funding, while the Democrats – using “emergency” funding designations – broke through his spending limit by $11 billion, the amount they promised to add after Republicans rejected a proposed $22 billion domestic spending increase.
But the disappointments have dominated the news, in large part because Democrats failed on some of the issues they put front and center, and that their key constituents wanted most.
The military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains open. Bush’s warrantless surveillance program was actually codified and expanded on the Democrats’ watch. Lawmakers could not 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 with the Democratic majority remain untouched, including a prohibition on federal funding for international family planning organizations that offer abortions.