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Democrats savor power for a year but end it feeling unfulfilled

Regrets
REGRETS: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, flanked by Sen. Charles E. Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a news conference, said, “We could have accomplished so much more.”
(Associated Press)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Congressional Democrats ended their first year in control of Congress in more than a decade Wednesday, approving a $555-billion government spending measure that gave President Bush $70 billion for an Iraq war they had promised to end.

And underscoring the frustrations that have beset the new majority much of the year, Democratic leaders left the Capitol complaining that much of their agenda had been thwarted by congressional Republicans who repeatedly stopped their most cherished initiatives.

“We could have accomplished so much more,” said a rueful Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at a news conference in the old office of a Reid predecessor, Lyndon Johnson.

Despite the more than five dozen Iraq-related votes throughout the year, Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) were never able to muster the support needed to compel the president to begin withdrawing U.S. forces.

They were also forced to renege on their pledge not to add to the federal debt. On Wednesday, the House spared more than 20 million middle-class taxpayers from paying the alternative minimum tax but abandoned any effort to recoup the $50 billion in lost revenue.

And as Democrats scrambled to pull together a budget bill in the face of veto threats from the president and solid GOP opposition on Capitol Hill, they scaled back plans to expand funding for education, Head Start, community health centers and other domestic programs.

In the end, Democrats were able to shift spending “only slightly at the margins,” said G. William Hoagland, a former senior Senate GOP budget aide. “But not for want of trying.”

Democratic leaders strove Wednesday to highlight the changes the party had accomplished after 12 years of almost uninterrupted Republican control on Capitol Hill. “America is in a better place than we were one year ago today, and the fact that Democrats control the Congress is part of the reason,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)

Congressional Democrats this year shifted the national debate about the war, the environment, even fiscal responsibility -- once a bedrock concept for the GOP that had been largely ignored by the president and his allies on Capitol Hill for the last six years.

The Democratic energy bill signed Wednesday by the president marked a historic change in the nation’s environmental policy, providing the most significant increase in fuel-economy standards for vehicles in more than three decades.

Democrats passed the most sweeping overhaul of ethics rules for Congress since the Watergate era. They raised the minimum wage for the first time in a decade. They cranked up dormant oversight machinery, subjecting the Bush administration and others to a stream of subpoenas and investigations, forcing Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales to resign and focusing new attention on fraudulent activities by U.S. contractors in Iraq.

And, although Democrats could not overcome GOP resistance to their budget priorities, many federal budget watchers credit them with bringing a new focus on the consequences of running up the national debt, which now tops $9 trillion, or $30,000 for every American.

“The major accomplishment is what they didn’t do that a Republican Congress might have, like more tax cuts that weren’t paid for, more spending that wasn’t offset,” said James R. Horney, who follows federal fiscal policy at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

But in a year in which the two parties were locked in a fierce showdown over the war that inflamed partisan tensions, those accomplishments were often overshadowed.

And as Democrats and Republicans maneuvered for political advantage, legislative business in the Capitol frequently ground to a halt.

In the Senate, the 49-strong Republican caucus used the chamber’s procedural rules to filibuster legislation by demanding a 60-vote supermajority to move dozens of bills. Senators held 62 roll-call votes this year to break filibusters, more such votes than most Senates see in a two-year session.

Frustrated Republicans, many of whom chafed at their new minority status, accused Democrats of breaking their pledge to run a more bipartisan Congress by limiting GOP amendments to bills and shutting out Republicans from negotiations on drafting of bills.

“The Democratic majority said they wanted to try to work in a bipartisan way to get things done, but we’ve seen anything but bipartisanship,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

As Democrats battered Republicans over the war in Iraq, Republicans repeatedly blocked Democratic attempts to impose timelines for withdrawing troops.

The partisan divide also took a toll on tax and budget legislation.

Democrats took power offering pledges to offset tax cuts and spending increases through new pay-as-you-go budgeting rules. But the president and Senate Republicans prevented any move to pay for the $50 billion in alternative minimum tax relief with new taxes on wealthy Americans.

Democrats also couldn’t enact one of their most popular measures, a plan to extend health insurance to more low-income children nationwide.

And, facing veto threats, Democrats found themselves severely hamstrung in how they could use the federal budget to fund domestic priorities they claimed had been neglected under the Bush administration.

Democrats did provide more money than Bush sought for veterans care, student aid, energy subsidies for the poor, grants to local law-enforcement agencies, housing programs, and programs to promote energy conservation and develop cleaner fuel sources. But in many cases, the additional funding was modest.

Democrats, for example, had to scale back their plans to expand research funding for the National Institutes of Health to a point that did not cover inflation.

“Unfortunately, we did not do as well as we believe we should have,” said Mila N. Becker, director of government relations for the American Society for Hematology. “We ended up with an amount that is very disappointing. I think people had higher hopes.”

Even some traditional Democratic allies expressed disappointment.

“The year began with a lot of promise,” said AFL-CIO Legislation Director William Samuel. “It’s been much more difficult than I expected. . . . We’re not making as much progress as we had hoped.”

Wednesday evening, the $555-billion omnibus budget bill passed the House 272-142, with 194 Republicans and 78 Democrats voting for it. Most Democrats voted against the measure because it included war funding.

Congressional Democrats’ struggles have not gone unnoticed. Public approval of Congress, which climbed to near 40% in surveys taken at the beginning of the year, a high mark for recent years, dropped to 22% in a Gallup Poll earlier this month.

GOP leaders have been quick to pounce on those sagging ratings.

“I’ve said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek but maybe not totally tongue-in-cheek, that the new majority ought to be in the Guinness Book of Records for squandering approval faster than any new majority in history,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday.

But at a time when polls show persistent public support for Democratic positions on issues such as the war, education and healthcare, Democrats are hoping that Republicans will face their own challenges if the gridlock continues next year.

“Republican senators are filibustering themselves out of their seats,” warned New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “This strategy of blockage may make them feel good at the moment, but it’s a strategy that will cause them to lose and lose and lose.”

richard.simon@latimes.com

noam.levey@latimes.com


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