Democrats Paid Heed To Voters in the First 100 Days: Now What?

Posted March 26, 2007 at 5:04pm

Freshman Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) went back and forth before deciding to vote “yes” on the U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans’ Health, and Iraq Accountability Act of 2007. Like most new Members of Congress, for Cohen this was a matter of conscience, and he wanted his constituents’ input.

[IMGCAP(1)]Cohen, who represents a largely black district, said on the House floor: “I want peace in the world and I want our troops to come home.” He then went on to state that he wanted to hear from his constituents.

The people of Memphis and its surrounding areas started to call and e-mail Cohen immediately. According to his staff, most of them wanted to know if the legislation would take care of the troops once they return. The staff also fielded numerous questions about whether the bill gave short shrift to our troops or if it would undermine the troops’ efforts in Iraq. When his constituents digested all the facts provided and understood what the supplemental contained, they assured the Congressman that they supported the bill.

Today, Cohen is at peace both with his vote and with the record Democratic leadership has built over the past 100 days. “This will be the first step in ending the war in Iraq, taking care of our veterans but at the same time supporting our troops,” he said.

Cohen also is proud that all of his new Democratic classmates stood together and are prepared to go back to their districts to discuss what they have accomplished thus far.

It’s a good thing the Easter recess is now upon lawmakers. They sure can use a break from the relentless speed required to shift the paradigm from the “do-nothing Congress of old” to a Congress with attitude and efficacy. Before the Speaker calls the House into recess, they still have some important matters on the table that ultimately will help end the previous era — one in which Congress largely stood still or, worse, rubber-stamped the Bush administration’s priorities. Especially when it came to passing the annual budget.

Since claiming control of Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have tried to keep their respective caucuses focused on the big prize: passing legislation that will help ordinary Americans, as well as positioning the party for 2008 and beyond. It’s not an easy job doing what the voters demanded this past fall — changing the direction of the entire nation — but at least they paid attention in the first 100 days. Now what?

Pelosi, who deserves a great deal of credit for being a tough leader who understands that legislating from the majority is just as difficult as keeping a minority party unified on reaching its goals, will have to shoulder much of the agenda. Clearly, she will get some help from Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who can reach out and bring in the Blue Dogs and more conservative elements, along with Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who has a rather disarming Southern charm masking his steel and true grit. Lastly, who in their right mind would cross Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and enjoy bragging about it later?

Now that the House leaders have a blueprint for how to hold the Caucus together on a contentious issue like funding the war and setting a timetable for withdrawal of our troops, I sure hope they come back rested for another round of fights and major confrontations with the administration over everything from ongoing investigations, the slog of passing appropriations bills and putting in motion other Democratic priorities.

They can start this week when Members get a chance to vote on the budget. Under the leadership of Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), this budget is not only fiscally balanced but also, more importantly, morally sound. According to the Budget Committee, the proposal increases veterans’ funding by $5.4 billion, expands children’s health insurance coverage, makes college more affordable and still posts a smaller deficit than the president’s budget over five years.

As Caucus Vice Chairman John Larson (Conn.) stated, “The Democrats’ budget this year will reflect the true priorities of this Congress and the American people. We want our children to be healthy and educated, our veterans respected and ensure the state of our environment is addressed.”

With a few major legislative victories already on the scoreboard, including implementation of 9/11 commission recommendations, increasing the minimum wage, expanding stem-cell research, the College Student Relief Act and the CLEAN Energy Act, the newly elected leaders should return in a few weeks and spend some of their political currency to make bold and dramatic policy changes.

I’ll just add a few that interest me: immigration reform, climate change, health care and education. The proposed solutions now in discussion are not easy. The coalitions to back bold new changes must be pulled together and the will to change the status quo must be garnered. Just remember, the voters demanded a new direction. They want results. They pay Members to come here to Washington, D.C., to get down to business.

Round One of the 110th Congress should go to the new Democratic majority. The next 100 days is up for grabs.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.