After 100 days in power, the Democratic Congress has enacted only one law of consequence, but party leaders say that soon will change as House and Senate leaders hope to hash out differences on a number of their top priorities in the coming weeks.
With the House returning from its two-week recess today, the pressure is mounting to start delivering on some of their promises given that many bills — such as one to raise the minimum wage and another to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 commission — have languished even though both chambers have passed their own versions and there is broad agreement among Democrats on the thrust of the legislation.
The House got off to a fast start, passing its “Six for ’06” campaign agenda items in the first 100 hours, but those bills have since been slowed down in the Senate or in conferences that have yet to occur. While 17 measures have been signed into law this year, the only major piece of legislation to make it to President Bush’s desk was the catch-all spending bill for the leftover fiscal 2007 appropriations.
Even something as basic to running Congress — and to Democrats’ 2006 campaign platform — as lobbying and ethics reform has taken a relative back seat as the debate over the Iraq War has taken up much of leadership’s attention. Still, Democrats in both chambers say they are moving legislation on multiple tracks.
“Certainly Iraq is the priority. It’s the No. 1 issue by far for voters and it’s very important and it deserves a lot of attention,” said Stacey Farnen Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “But we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
As for the slower-moving Senate, one senior Senate Democratic aide acknowledged that trying to force Bush to change his policy for the war has been time-consuming. “Iraq is on the forefront of our agenda, and we have Congressional Republicans doing everything they can to give President Bush cover,” the aide said.
Meanwhile, Republicans still smarting from being called a “do-nothing” Congress last year used the 100-day milestone to blast the Democratic leadership for failing to clear to the president any of their priority bills so far, releasing reports purporting to show a legacy of failure.
“The Democrats’ first 100 days has been marked by intraparty squabbling, indiscriminate pork-barrel spending and legislative paralysis on the most critical issues facing the American people,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Senate Republicans were equally harsh in their criticism, particularly of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) determination to keep Members in town for five-day workweeks.
“It has been a lot of action, a lot of talk, a lot of days in session and not a lot of accomplishments,” said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
But Democrats countered that legislative activity overall has doubled or tripled compared with the past several Republican-led Congresses and that the stage is set for numerous bills to reach the president’s desk in the next few months. Some 96 bills had passed the House by March 27, compared with 37 in the same time frame in 2005, House Democrats said.
“It’s hard to take the Republicans seriously,” Bernards said. “They were the do-nothing Congress, the most do-nothing Congress in history. It’s laughable.”
In addition to ironing out differences on the $120 billion-plus war supplemental and the fiscal 2008 budget resolution, Democratic leaders hope to soon send bills to the president enacting a higher minimum wage, putting in place the 9/11 commission’s recommendations, restricting the president’s ability to name U.S. attorneys without Senate oversight, expanding embryonic stem-cell research, and giving Medicare the authority to negotiate prescription drug prices.
“We’re above the target line for me,” said Reid, who noted that conferences are in progress or about to begin. “The president will have, before the summer is out, a significant number of bills.”
How many the president actually will sign is another matter entirely. Bush already has vowed to veto several, including stem cells, the 9/11 bill, and the war supplemental if Democrats include a timeline for withdrawal and massive unrelated spending.
Democrats say they also have provided a new check on the administration that was lacking under Republican rule. They note that they dramatically have increased the number of oversight hearings and forced the administration to answer for items such as the firing of the U.S. attorneys.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) noted that in the first 100 days of the 109th Congress, Republicans held “zero oversight hearings on Iraq. We’ve had 58.”
But Lott said the focus on oversight was thwarting action on other priorities for the American people. “If you are tangled up conducting partisan political investigations, how do you have time to produce legislation?” Lott asked.
Perhaps more than any other bill, the minimum-wage hike was seen as a slam dunk for Democrats, particularly since the president is apt to sign it. But the bill has stalled amid bickering between the House and Senate over the size of an accompanying package of business tax breaks. The Senate bill includes $8.3 billion in tax breaks, while the House reluctantly passed a measure with $1.3 billion in breaks following a House Ways and Means hearing in which Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) savaged the Senate bill for not sufficiently targeting small businesses.
But a Ways and Means spokesman said Democrats are hopeful that they can reach a compromise soon.
Leaders in both chambers included versions of the wage hike on the supplemental war spending bill, and as conference talks on the larger bill begin next week, so will discussions about the minimum wage, aides said.
Meanwhile, neither the House nor the Senate have appointed conferees on the 9/11 bill, which is designed to establish more safeguards against terrorism on U.S. soil.
Additionally, Democrats made the GOP’s “culture of corruption” a central tenet of their 2006 campaign message, but the House has yet to pass a bill to require more disclosure of lobbyists’ dealings with Congress. While the Senate passed a bill to both impose those requirements on lobbyists and themselves, the House has passed rules changes only for its Members.
On the war supplemental, competing language on when to pull out of Iraq and whether to force the president to do so or simply set a goal for him could be resolved as early as next week, one Senate Democratic aide said.
“There have been some discussions primarily at the leadership level, but at this point, it is a wide-open conversation,” said Tom Gavin, spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).
Democrats face a difficult balancing act because many House liberals signed on to the bill only because it contained a firm deadline for withdrawal, while anything smacking of a firm deadline could cost votes in the Senate.
However, the actual money in the supplemental likely will be easier to deal with, Gavin said.
Democrats also will meet this week to craft a joint budget resolution. House Democrats want to spend about $7 billion more than the Senate on discretionary accounts but adhere strictly to new “pay-as-you-go” budget rules. The Senate, meanwhile, voted 97-1 to assume extensions of tax cuts and an expansion of children’s health care without offsets, which would violate PAYGO. Reaching an agreement would itself be a milestone, as Congress has failed to adopt a joint budget resolution in three of the past five years.
On other issues, Republicans complained that Democrats simply have dropped the ball. While the House passed a bill to roll back some oil industry tax breaks, the Senate has yet to act on any energy measures.
“They were going to implement a comprehensive energy plan. Where has it been? What’s happening?” Lott asked.