End-of-Session Rush Provides a Lesson in Capitol Hill Politics

Posted November 21, 2003 at 3:26pm

This has been a fascinating couple of weeks for anyone who considers himself a student of politics.

As I write this, Congress continues to grapple with both the Medicare and energy bills. Whatever happens with them, they constitute the ultimate case studies of how things work on Capitol Hill. Somebody is eventually going to write a great book about what unfolds. [IMGCAP(1)]

Take a dash of politics, add a sprinkling of partisanship, mix in few drops of ideology and geography, and you have a recipe for mobilizing support or opposition to two important issues that Congress has been wrangling with for the past few weeks (and for many years).

Both bills have fired up so many competing interests that key Members of the House and Senate have been deluged by lobbyists and arguments. Each bill is an elaborate legislative package that can easily be undone if one of the elements holding it together fails.

To make matters worse, Medicare and prescription drugs have proven to be politically explosive issues in the past, a fact not lost on many Members of Congress. Just mention “Dan Rostenkowski” and “seniors” in the same sentence and some sitting Members of Congress break into a cold sweat.

Medicare, Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) reminded a group of reporters Friday morning, is “one of the most difficult issues that Congress can ever face” because “it is so personal.” We aren’t just talking about the difficulty of passing any bill. We are talking about Congress trying to pass the “mother of all bills.”

Add to that the fact that Congressional leaders are trying to enact the two controversial bills even though the Republicans hold only narrow majorities in both chambers, particularly a razor-thin 51-49 GOP edge in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed for passage.

Regardless of whether you like the Medicare bill written by the conference committee, the reaction to it on Capitol Hill has been heavily influenced by politics and partisanship. That’s just how things work here.

One Democratic strategist told me recently that if the current Medicare bill had been proposed by a Democratic president — for example, by Bill Clinton — it would have garnered near unanimous support from Senate Democrats and generated near unanimous opposition from Republicans. That sounds about right to me too.

But since there is a Republican in the White House, the dynamic is very different. Why do you think all of the Democratic presidential contenders except Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (who is far too thoughtful and reasonable to win his party’s nomination in the current national environment) have dismissed the bill as a giveaway to the pharmaceutical companies and a handout to the insurance industry?

Democrats in the House and Senate feel heavy pressure to deny President Bush a major legislative victory that he can take to the voters next year when he runs for a second term. Because of that, many of them have declared war on the Medicare bill, even though it establishes a $400 billion new entitlement program that Democrats can expand when they regain control of the White House and/or Congress.

Of course, many Republicans are uncomfortable with a new entitlement, to say nothing of the new government spending that comes along with the prescription drug benefit. They believe the bill runs contrary to their party’s philosophy, but they are under considerable pressure to give the president a bill that he can sign.

Some conservatives, however, are unwilling to support the bill, even though the president and Congressional leaders see it as an important accomplishment going into the 2004 election.

To these conservatives, principle trumps partisanship and pragmatism (even though they ought to realize that there will be a drug benefit at some point, whether they like it or not). And given the bent of their districts, they know that they can be re-elected no matter how the president fares.

And oh yes, there is always the personal aspect. More than a few House Republicans don’t mind seeing Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) squirm a little (make that a lot).

The same sort of pressures apply to the energy bill, though with the added complication of geography.

While moderate Democrats, particularly from the rural Midwest and South, are prepared to back the energy bill, a number of Northeastern Republicans oppose it. This is a classic case of local concerns overriding partisanship. But local concerns can always be assuaged in a massive spending bill that awaits approval and can grow more massive with the addition of a few more goodies, if necessary.

And yet, in other cases, Democratic Senators from states that would benefit dramatically from passing the energy bill are preparing to oppose the bill. “It’s all politics,” says one veteran lobbyist who believes that, as with Medicare, many Democrats believe that stopping a presidential success is the top priority for Democrats.

Complicated? Confusing? You bet. Many Members of Congress feel cross-pressured on these bills, and more than a few probably wish one or both would just go away so that they wouldn’t have to pick a side.

Nobody knows if or when these two important bills will pass Congress. But if both do, there will be plenty of credit to go around.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of theRothenberg Political Report.