IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

House GOP tries to shrug off setbacks

Republican leaders are trying to shrug off setbacks that make Congress appear to be  having trouble doing its most basic job: passing legislation. 
/ Source: The Associated Press

Could a Republican-controlled Congress, pass a bill to protect the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance from court challenges?

No problem, especially if proposed during the patriotic season leading up to the Fourth of July, Republican leaders thought.

No way, it turned out.

The bill, the first item on the GOP's trumpeted election-year "American Values Agenda," could not make it past a House committee.

Trouble within?
Even worse for the Republicans was that they could not blame Democrats. One of the GOP's very own, Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, voted no. Seven other Republicans skipped the committee meeting entirely.

So it goes this year for House Republicans, their majority in jeopardy for the first time in more than a decade. Take an unpopular president, factor in deep divisions in the GOP ranks and add to that Democrats determined to regain control. It all means a Congress having trouble doing its most basic job: passing legislation.

Republican leaders tried to shrug off the setbacks.

"We're not having trouble," Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, insists. "This is your typical legislative meat grinder."

Privately, many are frustrated. Democrats have pounced on the lack of progress with a "we can do better" election theme.

"I wish the election were today," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said last week, summing up a list of "Republican failures."

No real surprise
An election-year session of Congress with little major legislation turned into laws is nothing new. Lawmakers traditionally are loath to vote on contentious legislation so close to the start of campaigning, when they might be called to account for such votes.

One president, Harry Truman, ran against the "do-nothing Congress" during his 1948 re-election campaign.

For some, debating proposals that have little chance of passage is a legitimate use of the full House and Senate.

"Passing bills isn't the end-all and be-all of Congress," said Brian Darling of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "There's also some value in debating these issues and using Congress to air out issues that are important to the American people."

Democrats ridicule as political ploys Republican decisions to bring up legislation doomed to fail, such as the constitutional amendments to ban flag desecration and gay marriage.

Congress political?
"They're politicians," Darling said.

Republicans point out that Democrats are not above bringing up proposals just for political gain. They note that Democrats have insisted on bringing up a proposal to raise the minimum wage, which has failed for nine years.

With two-thirds of the 2006 legislative calendar over, Congress has passed and sent President Bush only two major pieces of legislation. One renewed the terrorist-fighting USA Patriot Act; the other extended $70 billion in tax cuts, roughly divided evenly between investors and middle-income families.

Lawmakers still have high hopes of sending Bush bills to bolster pension protections for 44 million workers and extending the historic Voting Rights Act. Republicans would like to protect multimillionaires from getting sacked by high inheritance taxes after a one-year reprieve from those taxes in 2010.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., also has broken a deadlock over legislation to allow the government to pay for embryonic stem cell research. The measure has passed the House and the bill could get a vote this month in the Senate. Neither the House nor Senate, however, has displayed the two-thirds majorities required to override Bush's promised veto.

The bill intended to shield the Pledge of Allegiance from federal court challenges can still be revived on the House floor if GOP leaders so choose, Republicans say. Privately, no one pretends to be pleased about the lack of progress on legislation that should have sailed through the committee and a House floor vote.

The legislative year is littered with failed or stalled Republican priorities. Some, such as an immigration overhaul, repealing estate taxes and changing rules on lobbying in response to several ethics scandals, are disappointments for many in the GOP and for Bush.

Particularly stinging was the forced postponement last month on renewing the Voting Rights Act on the very day it was to get a vote in the full House.

The measure, which outlawed racist voting practices in the South, enjoyed support from leaders in both houses and both parties. Republicans hoped that passing it a year before it expires would insulate them against charges of racism.

But Southern Republicans rebelled against a requirement that the Justice Department continue overseeing voting rules in the South. Other conservatives then balked at the law's requirement for bilingual ballots in areas with large immigrant populations. Nonetheless, House Republican leaders say they may try to bring it up this week.

More dramatic is how the fate of overhauling immigration laws has become an implacable dispute about whether to give most of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship.

Rather than spend the summer resolving differences between the House and Senate versions, their chief patrons scheduled new hearings to shore up their arguments, with no resolution in sight.