In the heady opening weeks of the 110th Congress, the Democrats' domestic agenda appeared to be flying through the Capitol: Homeland security upgrades, a higher minimum wage and student loan interest rate cuts all passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
But now that initial progress has foundered as Washington policymakers have been consumed with the debate over the Iraq war. Not a single priority on the Democrats' agenda has been enacted, and some in the party are growing nervous that the "do nothing" tag they slapped on Republicans last year could come back to haunt them.
"We cannot be a one-trick pony," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who helped engineer his party's takeover of Congress as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "People voted for change, but Iraq, the economy and Washington, D.C., [corruption] all tied for first place. We need to do them all."
Low-hanging fruit proves hard to pick
The "Six for '06" policy agenda on which Democrats campaigned last year was supposed to consist of low-hanging fruit, plucked and put in the basket to allow Congress to move on to tougher targets. House Democrats took just 10 days to pass a minimum-wage increase, a bill to implement most of the homeland security recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, a measure allowing federal funding for stem cell research, another to cut student-loan rates, a bill allowing the federal government to negotiate drug prices under Medicare, and a rollback of tax breaks for oil and gas companies to finance alternative-energy research.
The Senate struck out on its own, with a broad overhaul of the rules on lobbying Congress.
Not one of those bills has been signed into law. President Bush signed 16 measures into law through April, six more than were signed by this time in the previous Congress. But beyond a huge domestic spending bill that wrapped up work left undone by Republicans last year, the list of achievements is modest: a beefed-up board to oversee congressional pages in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal, and the renaming of six post offices, including one for Gerald R. Ford in Vail, Colo., as well as two courthouses, including one for Rush Limbaugh Sr. in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
‘We can’t wait anymore’
The minimum-wage bill got stalled in a fight with the Senate over tax breaks to go along with the wage increase. In frustration, Democratic leaders inserted a minimum-wage agreement into a bill to fund the Iraq war, only to see it vetoed.
Similar homeland security bills were passed by the House and the Senate, only to languish as attention shifted to the Iraq debate. Last week, family members of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, gathered in Washington to demand action.
"We've waited five and a half years since 9/11," said Carie Lemack, whose mother died aboard one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. "We waited three years since the 9/11 commission. We can't wait anymore."
House and Senate staff members have begun meeting, with the goal of reporting out a final bill by Memorial Day, but they concede that the deadline is likely to slip, in part because members of the homeland security committees of both chambers, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the two intelligence committees all want their say. The irony, Lemack said, is that such cumbersomeness is precisely why the Sept. 11 commission recommended the creation of powerful umbrella security committees with such broad jurisdiction that other panels could not muscle their way in. That was one recommendation Congress largely disregarded.
Voters taking notice of inaction
The Medicare drug-negotiations bill died in the Senate, after Republicans refused to let it come up for debate. House Democrats are threatening to attach the bill to must-pass government funding bills.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has proposed his own student-loan legislation, but it is to be part of a huge higher-education bill that may not reach the committee until June.
The House's relatively simple energy bill faces a similar fate. The Senate has in mind a much larger bill that would ease bringing alternative fuels to market, regulate oil and gas futures trading, raise vehicle and appliance efficiency standards, and reform federal royalty payments to finance new energy technologies.
The voters seem to have noticed the stall. An ABC News-Washington Post poll last month found that 73 percent of Americans believe Congress has done "not too much" or "nothing at all." A memo from the Democratic polling firm Democracy Corps warned last month that the stalemate between Congress and Bush over the war spending bill has knocked down the favorable ratings of Congress and the Democrats by three percentage points and has taken a greater toll on the public's hope for a productive Congress.
"The primary message coming out of the November election was that the American people are sick and tired of the fighting and the gridlock, and they want both the president and Congress to start governing the country," warned Leon E. Panetta, a chief of staff in Bill Clinton's White House. "It just seems to me the Democrats, if they fail for whatever reason to get a domestic agenda enacted . . . will pay a price."
More to the numbers?
Republicans are already trying to extract that price. Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said Democrats are just "trying to score political points on the war. . . . Part of their party can't conceive of anything else to talk about but the war."
Norman J. Ornstein, a Congress watcher at the American Enterprise Institute, said a Congress's productivity is not measured solely on the number of bills signed into law. Bills and resolutions approved by either chamber totaled 165 during the first four months of this Congress, compared with 72 in 2005. And Congress recorded 415 roll-call votes, compared with 264 when Republicans were in charge and the House GOP leaders struggled to impose their agenda on a closely divided Senate.
Democratic leaders remain hopeful that a burst of activity will put the doubts about them to rest. They have promised to pass a war funding bill and a minimum-wage increase that Bush can sign, to complete a budget blueprint and to finish the homeland security bill by Memorial Day. The House wants to pass defense and intelligence bills, its own lobbying measure and the first gun-control legislation since 1994, which would tighten the national instant-check system for gun purchases. The Senate hopes to complete a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee, said his party needs to get some achievements under its belt, but not until voters begin to focus on the campaigns next year. "People understand the Democrats in Congress are doing everything in their power to move an agenda forward, doing everything possible to change direction in the war in Iraq, and the president is standing in the way," he said.
Kyl was not so sanguine. If accomplishments are not in the books by this fall, he said, the Democrats will find their achievements eclipsed by the 2008 presidential race. Panetta agreed.
"This leadership, these Democrats have shown that they can fight," he said. "Now they have to show they can govern."