GOP is holding ground on Hill

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Democrats regained control of Congress last fall, flush with plans to change the direction of America. But their ambitions have been checked this year by a Republican minority that has held together on controversial issues.

As lawmakers prepared to recess for the rest of August, Democrats were celebrating the first increase in the minimum wage in a decade, and - after a flurry of legislative activity last week - votes approving many of the remaining Sept. 11 commission recommendations, a major expansion of children's health insurance and a tougher set of ethics standards for members of Congress.

But their mood dampened over the weekend when conservative Democrats joined Republicans in approving a new terrorism surveillance law that enhances the administration's electronic eavesdropping authority. The measure was backed by the White House but is unpopular with liberals.

House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio boasted that his party had forced the Democrats to close a terrorist loophole. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called many of the provisions "unacceptable" and asked the chairmen of the Intelligence and Judiciary committees to develop amendments as quickly as possible.

It was the latest in a series of disappointments for the new majority, which has also been unable to forge an agreement on comprehensive immigration reform or overcome presidential objections to embryonic stem cell research.

And on the most important issue facing the nation - the war in Iraq - despite seven months and countless hours of debate, Democrats have yet to make significant progress on reversing President Bush's policy.

Instead, after a campaign in which Democrats vowed to change course in Iraq, Bush has managed to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and push off, at least until next month, a reckoning with Congress on future Iraq policy.

As members prepared to head home for their summer break, some public opinion polls showed Congress even less popular than the president.

"They've managed to achieve an astonishing thing, which is to have the lowest approval ratings anyone can find for Congress in history - and have done it in a record short period of time," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.

A bright spot for Democrats is that the polls also give them higher ratings than the Republicans - an advantage on which they hope to build a larger, more effective majority in next year's elections.

"It is clear that the American public, while they're upset with the Congress, they do understand that it's Republicans who are opposing moving ahead with the people's business," said House Democratic leader Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland.

Republicans say all they are doing is acting as a brake on bad legislation.

"When the majority is right, we will try to help them," McConnell said. "We're not here to make them look bad. "

But Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee, said party members would campaign on the same theme next year that they did in 2006: If you want a new direction, vote Democratic.

For now, the Democrats' 231-202 majority in the House is less than the two-thirds needed to override a veto on a straight party-line vote. Their 51-49 edge in the Senate falls far short of the 60 votes needed to approve controversial items in the upper chamber.

As a result, Democrats were unable to muster the votes this spring to force Bush to begin pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, and they could not overcome his veto of a measure expanding federal support for embryonic stem cell research.

Donald F. Norris, director of the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says the new majority has found itself "in almost an impossible situation."

"The Republicans are able to make it very difficult for the Democrats to do anything substantial," Norris said.

"If you take a look at the stuff that has been passed, it's been weakened pretty substantially in order to get it passed," Norris said. "In the [House] energy bill, there's no change in gas mileage. What is that? Excuse me? They haven't been able to touch the war."

And that could hurt the Democrats, said Zach Messitte, who directs the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

"There's a perception among the electorate that, 'Well, they're not solving the problems, either,'" he said. "There's that sentiment that you saw back in the early 1990s that's developing, which is that people sort of say, 'Ugh, a pox on both the parties' houses.'"

Democrats tried to counter such sentiment last week with a 12-page "Progress Report" listing accomplishments from their first seven months in the majority. Among the items: rules requiring that new spending be offset by tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere; greater transparency on the pet-project spending known as earmarks; and the largest single investment in college aid since the 1944 GI Bill of Rights.

"We've met more, we've passed more legislation through the House, and we've done more" than the last, Republican-led Congress, Hoyer said.

Part of the challenge for Democrats, said Messitte, is that the public pays limited attention to political news - and that attention has been dominated by the 2008 presidential race, ethics scandals and, above all, the Iraq war.

"So even if there are things that they can point to that have been accomplished, they're buried on page A12," he said. "You've got to really be looking for that in order to find out what they've done."

Democrats say they have restored congressional oversight of the Bush administration and reframed the war debate.

"While I think all of us are somewhat frustrated by the pace of change, the fact of the matter is, we have totally changed the conversation," Van Hollen said. "The question now is not whether or not we are going to redeploy our combat forces out of Iraq, but how and when."

A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that a majority of registered Democrats said their party has not gone far enough in challenging Bush's Iraq policies.

Democratic leaders say they will continue to schedule votes on Iraq to keep the pressure on Republicans to withdraw their support for the unpopular war.

"Our strategy is to build enough support by little steps as well as big steps," Hoyer said. "We want to build it up vote by vote."

The House voted last week to guarantee a mandatory period of time out of Iraq for U.S. troops returning from the war before they can be sent back. Bush has vowed to veto the measure if it makes it to his desk. Iraq will again be the focus when lawmakers return next month, and Gen. David Petraeus issues a progress report on the troop surge.

Hoyer acknowledged the public's frustration.

"The American public has elected a Congress that is very closely divided," Hoyer said. "And they elected a Republican president. And so we are in a position where we just have to keep making the efforts that we can."

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