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Congress, White House Reprise Familiar Tune

First lady Michelle Obama and President Obama with former President Bush and former first lady Laura Bush after  Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009.
First lady Michelle Obama and President Obama with former President Bush and former first lady Laura Bush after  Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009.

A two-term president enters his lame-duck year feuding with a Congress controlled by the opposition party. The majority party in the House complains the Senate’s filibuster rules thwart the will of the people. Both sides of the aisle are disappointed a year-end omnibus bill doesn’t do justice to their legislative goals. And conflict in the Middle East creeps into political discourse at every turn.  

December 2015? Nope. Rewind eight years, to 2007, when dynamics were remarkably the same, even if most of the people and party identifications were different. Back then, President George W. Bush was finishing up his seventh year in office. But it was the first year he had to face Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. It was a conflict-driven year, with Bush wielding his veto pen multiple times and beating back Democrats’ attempts to put conditions on funding for the war in Iraq, a campaign promise they rode to majorities in 2006.  

Democrats started 2007 with optimism. It was the first time they had the House majority in 12 years, and the Senate majority since 2003.  

By the end of the year, though, they had to face the realities of dealing with a minority party in the Senate that wielded the filibuster and was backed up by a Republican White House. Bush vetoed one bill his first six years in office, in 2006. In 2007, he vetoed seven pieces of legislation. (Obama vetoed three bills in 2015; he had vetoed two in the previous six years of his presidency.)  

The 2007 legislative year began with Bush announcing plans on Jan. 10 for a surge in troop levels in Iraq; Democrats introduced multiple pieces of legislation to set timetables for troop withdrawals or set other conditions on war funding. None of them succeeded, falling to either filibusters or Bush’s veto pen, and 2007 rang to a close with Congress passing an omnibus with $70 billion in funding for the war, with no strings attached.  

Years before he became White House chief of staff and mayor of Chicago, then-Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel was the House Democratic Caucus chairman, and he was reduced to using legislative semantics to put a positive spin on things.  

“This is the first time the president made a request for the war and didn’t get full funding,” Emanuel said in December 2007. The president had requested $200 billion for the full 2008 fiscal year; the omnibus doled out $70 billion in what was termed “bridge” funding for the conflict. But supplemental funding bills in the coming year filled in most of the gap.  

Fast forward to 2015, and the Iraq war has morphed into a broader conflict involving the Syrian civil war and the Islamic State terrorist organization’s designs on establishing a caliphate in the region. While the fight isn’t about funding per se, Obama’s critics argue the president has no broad strategy to battle the Islamic State and stabilize the region.  

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for example, made the conflict the centerpiece of his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, which he suspended on Dec. 21.  

“Four months ago at the very first debate, I said that any candidate who did not understand that we need more American troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIL was not ready to be commander in chief,” Graham said in a video announcing his withdrawal from the race. “At the time, no one stepped forward to join me. Today, most of my fellow candidates have come to recognize this is what’s needed to secure our homeland.” Back in 2007, the Democrats’ 51-49 Senate majority allowed Republicans to slow or stop much of the majority party’s agenda. That led then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bemoan the filibuster as Democrats sought to put the year in perspective.  

“I think the 60 votes [required to overcome filibusters] is almost to the point of not representing the people,” the California Democrat said as Congress wrapped up its business on Dec. 19, 2007. “It’s not just a Senate barrier. It’s a barrier to everything we do in the House of Representatives,” she added, voicing concerns from many of her caucus’ members.  

House Republicans started 2015 with their own optimism but became increasingly frustrated with a Senate GOP majority still bound to the chamber’s procedural protocols.  

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, for instance, sent a letter in September, co-signed by 56 House Republicans, to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urging the two leaders to work to alter their chamber’s rules so that some measures could be approved by a simple-majority vote.  

“A move by the Senate to a majority vote that can approve some legislation would make it much easier for Congress to advance meaningful solutions to challenges our country faces,” they wrote.  

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., hasn’t joined that chorus, but House irritation with Senate rules is nothing new and, given the House’s inability to force change, will likely remain a perennial topic.  

And while McConnell has criticized Democratic filibusters this year, he protested mightily when Democrats changed the rules in 2013 to allow majority-vote approval of judicial nominees and defended the minority’s rights in 2007, when he led the GOP minority.  

“The Senate Republican strategy was essentially to use our robust minority of 49 for one of two purposes — either to shape things that we thought were headed in the right direction … or if we thought it was completely inappropriate for our country, to stop it altogether,” McConnell said in the Dec. 20, 2007, Roll Call.  

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., then a House member, might have tipped off Roll Call to the prevailing governing pattern when he summed up his feelings about the 2007 endgame and the compromises that made it possible: “Unfortunately, it makes the case for divided government,” he said then. “We’re incapable of policing ourselves.”  

As the country enters another presidential election year, it faces a similarly divided government.

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