As Senators return to Washington, D.C., after four weeks of talking with constituents back home, they can’t help but bring with them the strong sense that we find ourselves at a pivotal moment for the nation and for Congress itself. Americans want cooperative action on Iraq. And they demand that Congress address a number of urgent domestic issues such as runaway spending and the high cost of health care. We can do all this, but only if we put aside the partisanship that marked the first eight months of this session. It’s time, in other words, for both parties get back to basics.
One of the greatest challenges we currently face is the culture of the endless political campaign. Democrats took over the House and Senate in January because the Iraq War was going badly. Voters were unhappy, so they shook things up. But over the past eight months, Democrats have sometimes confused the means to their victory with the reason we all sought office in the first place: to legislate. Witness the midnight votes on Iraq, the endless partisan investigations, the hijacking of a war spending bill for months, before passing it, in an effort to navigate the anti-war left. The list goes on.
All of this might lead to headlines, but it doesn’t lead to new or better laws. With just four weeks to go before the new fiscal year, Democrats have not sent a single one of the 12 annual appropriations bills — the passage of which constitutes our most basic duty as legislators — to the president’s desk for a signature. And not unlike the grade-schooler who spends his weekend at the playground only to show up for class with nothing but an empty notebook, Senate Democrats will return to the Capitol this week with little more to show for themselves than a long to-do list.
This political route is unfortunate, and perhaps best illustrated by all the Iraq votes this session. Americans are rightly concerned about our current and future military commitments in Iraq. But by insisting on the partisan path, Democrats have ensured that the Iraq debate has played out at the extremes. More of the same will only delay the cooperative work that’s needed to create a policy aimed at protecting America’s vital long- and short-term national security interests in the Persian Gulf and Iraq.
The political approach has had little or no practical effect, particularly on the war. But it has led Democrats to make a number of statements they probably regret. Consider the member of the House leadership team who told The Washington Post that a positive report by Gen. David Petraeus would be “a real big problem for us.” Or the presidential campaign manager who chided Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for joining the growing list of Democratic Senators who now see military progress in Iraq. She was “undermining the effort in Congress to end this war,” he said.
This kind of abuse for free thinking, typified by the vicious blog attacks on Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) over his newfound appreciation for our current military strategy, is one reason cooperation is rare. No Member enjoys being isolated from his colleagues. But Baird’s courage gives us hope that as more Democrats acknowledge the good as well as the bad in Iraq, we’ll be able to work together on a path forward. This path won’t fit neatly into a campaign narrative, and it should begin with both parties listening, without prejudice, to Petraeus’ report.
Only then will we be able to have a serious and responsible debate about the war and free up time to debate important domestic issues. When they were not holding Iraq votes or issuing subpoenas, Senate Democrats found time over the past several months to propose ending the tax cuts that are behind our strong economy. The Senate also is poised to consider a number of tax hikes designed to pay for new or expanded federal programs. Americans need to know about these proposals, and Senators need the time to debate them. There is too much at stake to leave this work undone.
With just four weeks to go before the start of the next fiscal year, it’s likely Democrats will be forced to pass a place-holder bill later this month that allows the government to continue to operate at the previous year’s funding levels. Which is ironic, since Democrats campaigned against Republicans for doing that very thing just last year. Our mistakes cost us at the polls, but we learned our lesson. Politics has its place, but every day can’t be campaign day. If it is, nothing is accomplished. And those who forget it always end up paying for it at the voting booth in the end.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is the Minority Leader.