Congress 2007: Democrats In Charge

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., left, listens to Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Friday, July 27, 2007, in Washington. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari) AP

It's a painful irony for Democrats: In the space of a year, the Iraq war that was the source of party's resurgence in Congress became the measure of its impotence.

By the end of the 2007, a Congress controlled by Democrats for the first time since 1994 had an approval rating of only 25 percent, down from 40 percent last spring. Then the debate over the war split the party and cast shadows over other issues, spawning a series of legislative failures and losing confrontations with President Bush.

What to do about Iraq has turned into a dissing match so far-reaching and nasty that Congress's accomplishments are seen, even by some who run it, through the lens of their failure to override Bush and start bringing the troops home.

"There is no question that the war in Iraq has eclipsed much of what we have done," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters. "If you asked me in a phone call, as ardent a Democrat as I am, I would disapprove of Congress as well."

It's not as if the new Democrat-controlled Congress did nothing during 2007.

It gave the nation's lowest paid workers their first raise in a decade, raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $5.85 an hour in July. It will rise to $7.25 an hour in 2009.

Congress also cut in half the interest rates on federal student loans and boosted annual Pell grants for post high-school education by $260 to $4,310 in July, rising to $5,400 for the 2012-2013 school year. Bush signed the bill after initially threatening to veto it.

And in the year's firmest push-back, Congress for the first time overrode one of Bush's vetoes, on a $23 billion bill for restoring hurricane-ravaged wetlands along the Gulf Coast and other water projects. The president had protested it was filled with unnecessary projects, but 34 Senate Republicans defied him.

Democrats scored other political victories as well. Most significantly, a Democrat-led investigation revealed a troubled Justice Department and forced Alberto Gonzales, a longtime presidential friend, from the attorney general's office. Democrats also played a big role in selecting his successor, Michael Mukasey.

But the story of Congress in 2007 is more about what it failed to accomplish during a war that the public opposes and that Democrats had vowed to end.

On that, they found themselves repeatedly outmaneuvered, unable to break bill-killing GOP filibusters with 60 votes in a Senate where Democrats held only what effectively is a 51-49 majority.

Plans to expand health care for 10 million children stalled. And a fragile compromise put together by Bush and liberal Democrats to provide a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants buckled with only lukewarm support from all sides.

Perhaps the most bitter pill came toward the end of the year. Democrats were forced to acknowledge that the decrease in violence in Iraq might mean that Bush's much-criticized surge buildup of troops was working.

Simultaneously, they found themselves on the defensive against Republican charges that they squandered time on the war that could have been spent getting agency budgets passed on time. As usual, what has become an annual fix to the tax code to save 20 million families an average $2,000 in extra taxes was put off until the final days before Christmas.

Predictably, Democrats and Republicans blamed each other.

Majority Leader Harry Reid called Bush's "stubbornness" and Republicans' filibuster threats "obstruction on steroids."

Republicans suggested Democrats could have accomplished big reforms on Social Security and immigration — or even just speedy passage of the federal budget — had it been in their election-year interests.

"I just don't think the new majority wanted to do anything significant," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

By most accounts, the window for accomplishing broad new reforms was quickly closing as the nation's political machinery rumbled into position for the 2008 presidential and congressional elections. On the ballot will be all 435 House seats and 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate.

At stake is a wider Democratic majority, big enough to govern. A cascade of retirements by Republicans in the Senate made that goal achievable. Democrats hoped gain seats in the House, as well.

So they labored to tout what they had accomplished in the majority. They suggested that what failed this year might pass with more Democrats elected next year.

Bush has signed into law other initiatives of the Democratic-led Congress, such as $3 billion in funding for Louisiana's Road Home program to rebuild housing stock destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Procedural and institutional reforms became law as well, such as changes in ethics and lobbying rules.

Behind the scenes, Democrats and their aides debated which fights to pick next year with a lame duck president. Most likely, they said: the children's health care bill.

Immigration reform, however appears dead until the new Congress takes its seats in 2009.

By Laurie Kellman

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