Democrats Put ‘Faith in Future’

Party Looking Past ’07 Failures

Posted December 19, 2007 at 6:43pm

In a last-gasp media blitz before leaving town for the holidays, Congressional Democrats delivered a two-part public relations offensive designed to both highlight their successes and turn their failures into election wins next November.

Meanwhile, the majority party signaled that they would shift their top focus from trying to cut off funding for the Iraq War to the economy and health care in the new year, acknowledging that Senate Republicans and President Bush likely will continue to prevent them from forcing any real changes in troop levels or war strategy.

Saying “Faith in the Future” will be their theme going forward, House and Senate Democrats began pushing full-force their new message that they have accomplished a lot this year, but they still need voters to elect more Democrats in order to achieve the lasting change the party believes Americans voted for in November 2006 when they handed Democrats a majority in Congress for the first time in 12 years.

“We have not been able to get all of the things that the American people want us to do,” Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said. “But I can assure you that what has happened this year has paved the way for more dramatic change, because Republican Senators are filibustering themselves out of their seats.”

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asserted that the Democrats’ inability to stop the Iraq War was the biggest disappointment for the new majority and she acknowledged that Democrats had misjudged whether Republicans would shift their support for the conflict.

“We thought many more Republicans would reflect the position of their constituents, but they’ve remained wedded to the president,” she said.

Next year, she said, House leaders will shift their focus from trying to cut off funding for the war to setting policy in the war, citing as an example legislation sponsored by Reps. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) and Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) that would require the administration to outline a strategy for the war.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) also said the House would continue to focus on oversight of the war and related funds.

Despite their failure to cut off funding for the war or redeploy military personnel this year, Democrats sought to paint their efforts as a qualified success.

“This is the first time the president made a request for the war and didn’t get full funding,” Emanuel said, referencing the $70 billion in war funds that passed Congress this week. Bush had asked for nearly $200 billion for the current fiscal year.

Despite shifting their focus, Democratic leaders insisted they would not move the Iraq War to a secondary status in the next session.

“We’re not going to back off,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, adding that he would bring the issue back up in his chamber again and again in 2008 as he did this year.

Both Reid and Pelosi said they were proud of their ability — in the face of a record number of filibusters by Senate Republicans — to pass measures such as an energy bill that raised automobile fuel economy standards, legislation to implement terrorism prevention recommendations of the 9/11 commission, and a minimum-wage increase, to name a few.

While Reid said it was too soon to talk about next year’s priorities, Pelosi outlined an agenda for the second half of the 110th Congress that she said would focus on economic initiatives, health care, the environment, national security and defense, including the Iraq War.

Pelosi said Democrats would pursue a multipronged health care package that includes universally available health care, electronic patient records and scientific and technology research.

In addition, Democrats, who already have announced they are working on an economic stimulus package, expect to focus heavily on the economy in 2008.

“We need Republicans to join with us to address America’s looming recession,” Reid said.

House Democrats have laid much of the blame for their failed efforts — including an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program as well as the failure to pass offsets to “pay for” alternative minimum tax reform — at the feet of Senate Republicans, citing the other chamber’s rules requiring a 60-vote supermajority to cut off debate on legislation.

“I think the 60 votes [required to overcome filibusters] is almost to the point of not representing the people,” Pelosi said, echoing a rising tide of complaints from rank-and-file House lawmakers. “It’s not just a Senate barrier. It’s a barrier to everything we do in the House of Representatives.”

Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) listed among his party’s key successes this year their ability to block several pieces of legislation from leaving the Senate. That includes Democratic efforts to force a change of strategy in Iraq, a Medicare prescription drug bill and a measure that would have made it easier to form labor unions, among others.

“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 the country, to stop it altogether,” McConnell said.

But McConnell also touted bipartisan achievements and said all of Congress would benefit.

Citing some of the lowest approval ratings for Congress in 20 years, McConnell said, “I will predict that those numbers are going to begin to pick up some, as a result of the efforts that you’ve seen here in the last two weeks where we really have met in the middle. We really have made compromises.”

In terms of how both House and Senate Republicans shaped legislation, their most notable accomplishment was in refusing to accept any omnibus spending bill that added significantly to the president’s top line budget, and in the end, Democrats were forced to pass a bill that shaved $22 billion in non-emergency funds from what they originally wanted to spend on domestic programs.

House Republicans, who have far less power than their Senate counterparts, took credit for keeping Democrats on the defensive this year.

“This year we’ve done a very good job of defining them. They’re for higher taxes, bigger government, and when it comes to dealing with the war on terror they’re showing weakness,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said.

He said that while Republicans will continue to be the loyal opposition next year, he pledged that the party also would do more to put their own solutions forward.

“We also have to define ourselves next year,” Boehner said. “We as a party have to have solutions for the American people. But solutions built on our principles.”

Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.