Video: 'State of the Union' on Iraq

By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 1/19/2007 5:22:25 PM ET 2007-01-19T22:22:25

Even though they just finished approving sweeping ethics reforms, a higher minimum wage, anti-terrorism measures, new Medicare prescription authority and lower student loan interest rates, congressional leaders wrapped up their breathless week Friday knowing the hard work is only just beginning.

“Over the last two weeks, we’ve seen what a good ‘Do Something, Do Good’ Congress can do,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said after House Democrats passed the last of the six bills on their “First Hundred Hours” agenda, Thursday, with 13 hours to spare.

On the Senate side, Democrats and Republicans alike were congratulating themselves a day after they overwhelmingly voted to approve a measure to clean up lobbying and force the anonymous drafters of expensive legislative earmarks to identify themselves.

The rush of action this week — orchestrated by the new Democratic leadership to remake Congress’ image into one of boldness and action — hides a stark reality: Beginning next week, old political rivalries and new congressional rules could slow things to the crawl voters are accustomed to.

Senate ethics vote just the first step
The Senate ethics bill passed to great fanfare late Thursday by a vote of 96 to 2, prompting Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to boast: “This is a classic example of bipartisanship ... at its best.”

It would ban gifts from lobbyists, toughen restrictions on travel, bar former lawmakers from lobbying Congress for two years, deny pensions to senators convicted of bribery, identify the sponsors of special projects slipped into spending bills and require senators to disclose any negotiations for a private job.

But passage wasn’t as easy as the near-unanimous vote would make it seem. And it will be some time before the rules are actually turned into law, if they ever are.

Up until the last minute, Republicans blocked the bill, holding it hostage until they could win Democratic concessions on an unrelated measure dear to their hearts — giving President Bush the authority to veto individual items of any spending bills he otherwise signs into law.

The ethics bill was freed up only after Majority Leader Harry Reid, R-Nev., agreed to let the Republicans bring the line-item veto up for a vote next week. The dispute over the first bill passed by the new Senate tore further at partisan differences already frayed over fundamental disagreements over Iraq and domestic surveillance.

“What this maneuver shows is that the Republican leadership hasn’t learned the lessons of the 2006 election,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Democratic leadership.

Furthermore, while some provisions of the ethics bill will go into effect because they are changes in Senate regulations, the most significant reforms await implementation, perhaps indefinitely, because the House must still pass its own version of an ethics bill. That process won’t even begin until next month, and after that, the two bodies would still have to work out differences between their bills.

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Ballyhooed House measures have long way to go
Likewise, the big changes passed in recent days under the House Democrats’ agenda must also be approved by the Senate; even if they are, some — notably measures to loosen restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and to require the government to negotiate lower prices on prescription drugs for Medicare recipients — would then have to survive likely presidential vetoes.

The fast pace of the House action was also misleading. Progress will slow dramatically beginning next week, thanks in part — and perhaps ironically — to a promise made by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that is intended to make things go more smoothly.

Pelosi campaigned on a promise to give Republicans more say in how the House is run by lifting restrictions on committees’ authority and allowing Republicans to attach amendments to important bills, overturning procedural roadblocks that Republicans enforced against Democrats for the last 12 years. But she promptly set those promises aside as soon as the new Congress convened so she could force through the First Hundred Hours measures.

Pelosi promised that the new rules would take effect next week, but Republicans were skeptical Friday.

“They passed legislation, [but] they have also shown they will go back on any promise they kept,” Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., complained Friday.

Iraq: the elephant in the room
And none of that takes into account the big issue on the table: Iraq.

Pelosi and Reid strongly oppose Bush’s plan to increase the U.S. troop commitment in Iraq, which will push every other issue into the background next week as Bush goes to the Capitol to sell the idea in his State of the Union address.

Pelosi called the U.S. intervention in Iraq a “ historic blunde r” on Friday, saying in an interview with ABC News: “The president knows that because the troops are in harm’s way that we won’t cut off the resources. That’s why he’s moving so quickly to put them in harm’s way.”

The White House immediately went on the attack, calling Pelosi’s comments “poisonous.”

“Speaker Pelosi was arguing, in essence, that the president is putting young men and women in harm’s way for tactical political reasons, and she’s questioning his motivations, rather than questioning his policies,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Perino added, in case anyone missed her message: “It’s certainly not in keeping with the bipartisan spirit and civility that the Democrats pledged and that we looked forward to.”

NBC’s Mike Viqueira and Brooke Hart contributed to this report.

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