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Are Reid and Pelosi Their Own Worst Congressional Leaders?

Last week, Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), talking about deteriorating partisan relations in the Senate, told The New York Times, “Every time I think the Senate — Republican or Democrat — has gone to a point where you can’t go any lower, we go lower.” Lott could be speaking for most Americans whose views of Congress also have reached new lows. [IMGCAP(1)]

That the Democratic-controlled Congress has become a sorry spectacle of petty bickering and partisanship goes without saying. In fact, I’ve said it before. But the Senate Democrats’ sleepover last week to debate the Iraq War, complete with pizza and plenty of gabbing, scraped the bottom of the public relations barrel.

It was political theater of the absurd that accomplished nothing unless you count Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) “Kumbaya” moment on the Capitol grounds with anti-war protesters a serious achievement. The only thing missing was Joan Baez.

Do Democrats really believe that anti-war rallies, rather than substantive legislation on issues such as health care, education and economic policy, are what the American people had in mind in November when they voted for change? There is no question voters were frustrated when they put Democrats back in control, and the lack of progress in the Iraq War was part of the issue mix.

But what they really wanted was a Congress that worked, that addressed their problems and got something done. In voters’ minds, their only option was to replace Republicans with Democrats, and they did. What they didn’t want, however, is what they’ve gotten: a Democratic majority, led by the harshest of partisans, that spends most of its time endlessly inventing new ways to take votes against the Iraq War or investigating the Bush administration’s conduct of almost everything.

What Democrats don’t seem to understand is that winning control of Congress because voters want to throw the other guys out creates a very complex governing environment because they take power with no true support for an agenda.

The “Six for ’06” Democratic platform was little more than a group of cherry-picked proposals, not a comprehensive agenda for real change. In January, Democrats should have worked to build a bipartisan consensus that recognized the 2006 elections were not an endorsement of extreme Democratic ideology or a green light for an anti-Bush investigatory vendetta. But Reid and Pelosi just don’t get it.

After Senate Democrats lost the Iraq cloture vote the morning after the pajama party, an outcome that was never really in doubt, Reid blamed Republicans for Democrats’ failure. All in all, it was a pathetic performance, even by Reid’s standards, and this continuing Democratic ineptitude in both chambers is taking a huge toll with voters.

National polling numbers bear this out as a string of surveys over the past couple of weeks have shown Congressional job- approval numbers continue at record lows.

So here’s a little exercise in logic for the Democratic leadership.

On CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Reid said that “the president already has the mark of the American people that he’s the worst president we’ve ever had.” Bush’s poll numbers may be low, but they are still higher than the Congressional approval numbers. Then by Reid’s own criteria, by the “mark of the American people,” doesn’t that mean Reid and Pelosi are the worst Congressional leaders we’ve ever had?

The hard truth is that Reid and Pelosi have no one to blame but themselves for a dismal record. A closely divided Congress is difficult to manage but not impossible.

Former Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) struggled to get things done as Reid and Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Patrick Leahy (Vt.) set up legislative road blocks at every turn to stop Republican progress. In just his past two years leading the Senate, which these same Democrats criticized as a “do-nothing” Congress, Frist successfully shepherded two difficult Supreme Court nominations, energy exploration legislation, the 2006 tax bill, class-action reform and a port security bill, among others, through a bitterly divided Senate. What does the Reid/Pelosi team have to show after seven months in power? Not much.

This week, they will, no doubt, try to tout a homeland security legislation conference report claiming that it will implement the “rest” of the 9/11 commission recommendations. Smart money, however, is on an abridged version that will fail on two counts. First, one of the most important recommendations — reform of the bureaucratic Congressional committee structure that oversees homeland security issues — will get short shrift if it is addressed at all. Keeping committee chairmen happy likely will be more important than making homeland security work.

Second, Democrats have opted, so far, to omit the “John Doe” protection amendment, originally introduced by GOP Reps. Peter King (N.Y.) and Steve Pearce (N.M.) and passed by the House in a 304-121 bipartisan vote. The amendment would protect citizens who report suspicious activities from frivolous lawsuits.

It stemmed from the well-known “flying imams” case in which a group of Muslim clerics filed suit against US Airways and a group of passengers who reported what appeared to be strange behavior on the part of the clerics on a flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix. The clerics were removed from the flight before takeoff.

In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, King asked how Democrats “can possibly say they’re passing ‘the ultimate comprehensive homeland security bill’ while eliminating the provision that protects people who report terrorist activity.” This is either political correctness run amok in a sop to the Council on American Islamic Relations or it’s political payback to the trial lawyers. Either way, Democrats have blundered on this one by putting politics ahead of protecting Americans trying to do the right thing for their country.

The worst Congressional leaders in history, by their own definition, ought to get back to the business of doing the right thing for the American people.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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