Democrats step up

FIRST GUN CONTROL, now fuel economy. Congressional Democrats still have a lot of work ahead to get their groundbreaking bills past both houses and the president's desk, but you can't say they're not leading a radical change in direction.

On June 13, the House passed what could become the first major gun-control law in a decade, a bill aimed at strengthening a federal database used in background checks for gun buyers. A week later, the Senate approved an energy bill that would improve mileage for the nation's automotive fleet for the first time in nearly 20 years. Democrats still haven't forced a troop reduction in Iraq or put their stamp on the nation's backward immigration policies, but their surprising success in other areas is worthy of praise.

Not that Democrats deserve all the credit. The gun bill was a bipartisan effort that passed by acclamation after it won the blessing of the National Rifle Assn., while 20 Republicans — nearly half the 43 who voted on the measure — backed the fuel economy bill. Still, these measures would have been inconceivable while Republicans controlled both houses during the first six years of the Bush administration, a period characterized by the disgraceful decision to allow a decade-old assault weapons ban to expire in 2004 and successive energy bills focused on maximizing fossil fuel production at the expense of the environment.

It would be nice to think that the broad Republican support for a progressive energy bill signaled a pro-environment change of heart. Unfortunately, it probably has more to do with the high price of oil; Republicans are feeling pressure to bring gas prices down. They also rightly see dependence on foreign oil as a national security issue. The fuel economy bill would increase the average mileage requirement for cars sold in the U.S. from 25 miles per gallon to 35 by 2020, expected to eventually save millions of barrels of oil a day.

Regardless of their motives, Republicans' support for the energy bill will increase pressure on President Bush to sign it, assuming it gets through the House. Bush favors better fuel economy but wants it to come at a slower pace, with loopholes to allow more gas guzzling by SUVs. The Senate energy bill has its own regrettable loophole: A strong mandate was watered down in committee, allowing federal regulators to cancel the improvements if they decide the tighter standards aren't "cost-effective." But senators beat back furious efforts by the auto industry to weaken the bill further.

There was one sour note to last week's passage of the energy bill: An amendment that would have required the nation to get 15% of its electricity from renewable sources was defeated. Senate leaders should revive it in the future.

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