Economic Issues Will Share Center Stage With Iraq

Posted December 2, 2007 at 11:00pm

After a year marked by partisan gridlock as the White House and the Democratic Congress joust over spending priorities and the Iraq War, next year’s legislative agenda will likely see more of the same, but with an even greater emphasis on pocketbook issues.

In addition to continued fights over ending the war in Iraq, Democrats aim to pass legislation intended to address the middle-class squeeze as the housing market falters, the dollar slides, and health care and energy prices soar.

Democrats also will be dealing with whatever they cannot finish this year. It’s possible that they will be unable to wrap up their veto showdown with the president on appropriations bills or finish work on a major energy package in December, kicking them into next year.

But the big kahuna will be President Bush’s $200 billion war supplemental. Democrats will be under increasing pressure to approve the funding as the Pentagon begins shutting down domestic operations in order to divert funding to Iraq, but they have vowed to keep pressuring the president and Republicans to agree to a goal of getting troops out of Iraq by December 2008.

The supplemental will also be coming up amid the heat of a presidential primary season, unless a short-term deal is reached to extend funding for the war a few months this year.

Beyond that, Democrats are generally short on specifics in each chamber as to their goals for the year, and they caution privately that they are still discussing their agenda. Indeed, some staffers’ eyes simply glaze over at the thought of next year, with so much of this year’s agenda still up in the air.

But with the economy showing signs of faltering, expect bread-and-butter issues to come to the fore.

Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), who serves as vice chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he expects a legislative agenda that builds off of the middle-class domestic issues Democrats have attempted to pursue this year.

“I think it’s very clear that Democrats are in touch with the kitchen-table issues that middle-class working families face in this country,” he said. “They have an economy that is stagnant … in wages over the last few years. Yet they face higher tuition costs, higher gasoline costs, higher health care costs, and they’re feeling squeezed.”

House Democrats also plan to take aim at economic concerns.

“Adding to the ‘New Direction Congress’ accomplishments of the first session like passing the minimum wage, making college more affordable and passing the 9/11 commission recommendations, we’re fully aware that more progress lies ahead, especially as many Americans feel the economic insecurity of the Bush administration policies,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), Democratic Caucus chairman, said the economy will be the dominant issue other than Iraq next year. He said he would pay Republicans to keep talking about how great the economy supposedly is — and pay their cab fare to the White House to appear with President Bush. Emanuel added that even when Democrats fail to enact laws, they can still come out ahead of Republicans. “George Bush defines the political environment. … Which party is trying to change from George Bush’s direction, and which one is trying to maintain it?”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said Democrats would push several pieces of legislation to help mitigate the looming financial crisis caused by subprime mortgage failures across the country, as well as education bills for both young children and veterans returning from the Iraq War. She noted that Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) has a measure to create a new GI bill for Iraq veterans.

Veterans’ health care, which Democrats have spent a good part of 2007 pursuing, would continue to dominate their policy objectives, Stabenow said.

Menendez added that an extension of the current State Children’s Health Insurance Program would likely be in the works if Democrats are unable to broker a deal to override the president’s veto.

He added that other health care bills would likely crop up in 2008, but those “may not be the whole enchilada” when it comes to reforming health care in America.

Menendez also said Democrats would continue to link their domestic agenda to the price of continuing the Iraq War and would point out “the cost of the war and the consequences of them here at home.”

Though some Democrats said their agenda will probably have similarities to issues raised by their party’s presidential nominee, they cautioned that they would have to outline their own legislative agenda before any of the eight Democratic presidential candidates becomes the presumptive nominee.

“I think that the Senate Democrats will have their own set of priorities,” Menendez said. “I’m sure to a large degree that will dovetail with the nominee, but that nominee won’t be obvious until February.”

Senate Republicans also said they were still discussing which legislative items to pursue next year, but Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) suggested that much of what the party does will be contingent on the agenda of their presidential nominee.

“I think our party is really hungry for the leadership that a nominee will provide,” Martinez said. “And I think that will drive the issues as well.”

Still, Martinez said it was already obvious that health care and energy issues would be high on the GOP’s 2008 list.

“On energy, on health care, we need to begin to provide answers to people’s problems,” Martinez said. “To me, our success is going to be tied to problem solving. I think the American people are tired of the gridlock, and I think they’re really tired of us messaging one another to death.”

Martinez said he sees the potential for a bipartisan compromise on an energy bill that has already made it through both chambers but has yet to be reconciled and sent to the president. But he doesn’t see many opportunities for deal-making on other issues, given the recent partisan history of the Senate.

“I would have hoped this past year that there would have been [bipartisan agreements], and that failed miserably,” said Martinez, who added that Democrats have made it harder for the parties to come together by scheduling dozens of Iraq War-related votes. “When we’re voting on things that we know the outcome of, but we still are driving to do those votes, I see less and less chance of it. I’m an optimist. I always will be, but I’m not optimistic about that.”

Democrats, however, put the onus of bipartisanship squarely on Republicans’ shoulders, noting GOP Senators have nearly broken the record for the number of filibusters in a single year.

“This has been a Republican minority that has decided their main goal in life is to stop us from accomplishing anything for two years,” Stabenow said. “Nothing gets done if there is not bipartisan support. So the question is really one to our Republican colleagues and the Republican leadership.”

Meanwhile, House Republicans say there is a window of opportunity to get some items accomplished if Democrats start negotiating with them.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Democrats wasted too much time this year posturing on Iraq and other issues, but he said there is still a chance for reaching compromises on energy and health care next year.

But Brian Kennedy, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), sounded a pessimistic note.

“What gets accomplished? If this year is a bellwether, a whole lot of nothing,” he said. “Taxpayers would be well-served and more well-off, financially, if the majority closed the Congress for renovations next year.”

Kennedy said Republicans would continue to fight to stop Democrats from raising taxes or weakening national security. “And we’ll roll out a common-sense agenda that resonates with voters to continue the goal of earning back the majority.”

Regardless of whether bipartisanship reigns in 2008, Menendez said Democrats believe they are on track.

“Change is in the wind,” he said. “People understand that the change they want to see is a change in the direction of our country. And for that, I think Democrats are well-positioned on the positions that they take, even if they can’t succeed on those issues.”

A senior Democratic House aide added that Republicans are out of touch.

“President Bush and Republican leaders in Congress need to come down out of the clouds and take a look at what’s happening on Main Street all across America,” said a senior House Democratic aide. “The argument that tax cuts for the rich are the solution is not going to cut it anymore.”