With the immigration bill dead, troop-withdrawal deadlines vetoed and other high-profile initiatives stalled, Democratic leaders closed six months in control of Congress mired in low approval ratings and plotting a legislative blitz on an issue they once tried to escape: Iraq.
Defeated last month on a war funding bill, Democratic leaders had hoped to spend June delivering on prominent domestic issues, such as homeland security, ethics rules and immigration. Instead, they limped out of Washington for a week-long Fourth of July break with few successes to boast about while complaining bitterly of Republican tactics that had stymied their higher-profile efforts.
On Thursday alone, parliamentary trench warfare helped torpedo President Bush's immigration bill. Hours later, two of the same warriors -- Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) -- blocked Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) as he tried to finish work on ethics legislation and a bill instituting most of the homeland security recommendations of the blue-ribbon committee that studied the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Reid yesterday dismissed recent congressional approval ratings as tied more closely to Washington under Bush and the Iraq war than any specific qualms with Congress. A new CNN poll, touted by Democratic leaders, showed that while nearly half of the respondents disapproved of what the Democrats had accomplished so far, 57 percent said Democratic control of Congress is good for the country.
But even Democratic pollsters have warned congressional leaders that they have to show they can govern effectively. To do that, Democrats plan to spend much of July pressing Republicans to break with Bush on the war, and showing a dispirited public that they are committed to ending the war.
"There's a sense that we haven't brought change to Iraq, and it affects the environment overall," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).
Effort to engage voters
The Senate intends to move to a defense policy bill on which Democrats will again try to attach binding troop-withdrawal timelines. The proposals under consideration would demand greater accountability from Bush and the Iraqi government, standards for troop readiness and a ban on permanent bases. Lawmakers are moving to restore the rights of terrorism suspects to challenge their detention in federal court, and to close the military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
House leaders plan to introduce parallel legislation on Iraq, even though they avoided Iraq-related issues when they approved their annual defense policy bill earlier this month, saying they wanted to pass it quickly.
A measure to de-authorize the war is still a possibility, as well.
By mid-July, Democrats say, they will offer weekly votes to force Republicans, and the president, to defend the war. "Though we failed in a particular action" to limit the war through the Iraq spending bill, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said, "we're not stopping until a change in policy is effected."
The idea, Democratic leaders said, is to engage voters who have turned against the president and have soured on a Congress that they still see as ineffectual. But grousing about "cloture" motions and other obscure Republican stalling tactics will not help Democratic lawmakers who are at home this week, facing voters anguished by the war.
"It's about reconnecting with the public out there who don't understand cloture, who don't understand things that go on in the Beltway, but who do understand action, who do understand passing bills," said Rep. John B. Larson (Conn.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
There have been achievements. On the Senate side, Democrats helped secure the first increase in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards in a generation. A long-sought increase in the minimum wage was tucked into the Iraq spending bill. New House rules limit favors from lobbyists and now require the disclosure of pet spending projects, or earmarks.
But other measures have slammed into Republican roadblocks that Democrats say are worse than before. Coburn is blocking the Sept. 11 commission bill until he gets assurances that a final deal will include his measure to audit homeland security grants to make sure that the money is properly spent. DeMint says he will not allow the ethics bill to enter final talks unless Reid strips out the disclosure rules on lawmaker earmarks and tries to pass them as rules of the Senate.
"If you look at the 108th and the 109th Congresses, in the first six months in those cases, there were only two cloture votes. It's dramatically changed now," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).
But when they were in the minority, Democrats routinely set strict conditions -- or at least demanded a seat at the table -- before they allowed bills to reach House-Senate negotiations.
As the spending cycle intensifies this summer, Democrats will try to sneak more of their agenda items into must-pass spending bills. But with the bills already behind schedule and the president threatening to veto most of them for a range of reasons, the tactic has limits.
Republican maneuvers "are nothing all that extraordinary," said Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) when Frist was the Senate majority leader. "There are 49 Republicans in the Senate now. It's the largest Republican minority in history. . . . They need to be listened to."