The Seven-month Niche

Democrats plan to head home on summer break with a short cheat sheet to help convince voters they made the right choice last year in giving Democrats control of Congress.

Children's health insurance, congressional ethics, a minimum wage increase, Sept. 11 Commission recommendations -- every good Democrat will have his talking points memorized for the August recess.

But the list of legislative wins -- several in a flurry over the past few weeks after congressional approval ratings hit rock bottom -- amounts to a solid game of small ball on feel-good measures.

On the most pressing issues -- Iraq and immigration -- Democrats have happily played to a stalemate, believing the best strategy is to blame intransigent congressional Republicans and a lame-duck president for their inability to broker landmark change on the issues that matter most to voters.

"What the American people have learned is that Democrats are trying to get things done, and we've been obstructed," said Sen. Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who was the architect of the Democrats' Senate takeover last year.

This strategy may work for now, but in avoiding landmark compromises in favor of short-term political victories, the Harry Reid-Nancy Pelosi Congress has used its power to frame political debate rather than build a substantive legislative legacy so far. Indeed, the Reid-Pelosi Congress so far is not challenging the legends of legislative icons like Lyndon Johnson or Sam Rayburn, Democratic giants who forged compromises in divided chambers and won credit for historic legislation.

Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, gave congressional Democrats high marks for political gamesmanship.

"They really reshaped the debate on Iraq," Zelizer said. "It is now about an exit strategy instead of simply supporting what the president has done. The exit strategy debate would have been almost unthinkable just a few years ago."

Looking ahead, September will be a critical month on matters of war and money. First, Democrats and Republicans will have to figure out how to spin the results of a pivotal Iraq report, especially if the report has a mix of good news and bad news, as expected.

Second, Democrats will have to decide whether to play a game of budgetary brinkmanship with President Bush -- and possibly force a government shutdown -- or to find common ground on stalled appropriations bills.

If the Democrats' first seven months of power are an indicator of how they'll proceed in the fall, expect the political stalemates to continue on Iraq and appropriations as Democrats continue to pin blame on the president and his fellow Republicans in Congress.

The Republicans' response to Democratic power, meanwhile, has been strictly out of the minority party playbook. They have thrown up procedural roadblocks, filibustered Iraq and immigration measures, and resorted to two well-worn slogans, "tax and spend" and "do-nothing Congress," in criticizing the new majority.

Yet some Republicans admit that Democrats have executed a smart short-term strategy designed to show minor accomplishments while focusing on bigger issues, such as an unpopular president running an unpopular war.

"They'll have a lot to crow about when they leave" for the August recess, said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "They won the election on the war on corruption, and they've pressed those issues."

But LaHood warns that in the long run, legislative accomplishments matter, and the leadership styles of Reid and Pelosi could come under scrutiny -- especially from within the Democratic caucus.

"There's going to be an assessment of (Pelosi's) leadership, and we've seen her coalesce all the power around the speaker's office," LaHood said. "Almost all the issues go through her. In the long term, that can hurt, because you won't have many friends."

Pelosi's effor to unify her caucus around a political strategy at the expense of a bipartisan legislative breakthrough was on display during recent debate over the Farm Bill.

The legislation emerged from committee with unanimous support from lawmakers, putting it firmly on track to be a routine renewal of popular subsidies -- a goodie bag for members of both parties. But Democratic leaders had other plans in mind. In a move designed to appease urban liberals and alienate anti-tax conservatives, they added a tax increase on foreign-owned companies to pay for increases in food stamp programs.

The gambit had its intended effect. It presented Republicans with an awkward choice: Support a tax hike or oppose popular farm programs. Most opted to vote against the tax increase even at the expense of angering rural voters.

Ultimately, only 19 Republicans voted for it, including rural GOP lawmakers, such as Reps. Adrian Smith of Nebraska and Denny Rehberg of Montana, and politically vulnerable lawmakers, like Republican Reps. Heather Wilson of New Mexico and Robin Hayes of North Carolina.

On the Senate side, Reid has also found ways to maximize discomfort for Republicans on a handful of issues while staving off votes on potential bipartisan breakthroughs.

After a troop withdrawal amendment failed during a recent defense authorization bill debate, Reid pulled the bill from the floor, rather than allowing a vote on a more moderate troop redeployment measure that had backing from a half-dozen senators from both parties. Reid dismissed the recommendations, which mirrored the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report, as "toothless," and Democrats privately warned that they did not want to give vulnerable Republicans political cover to vote for a moderate alternative on Iraq.

"They didn't want to allow Republicans to go home and say they voted for this bipartisan bill, indicating to constituents that they were really moving the ball down the field," said Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University.

Democrats will spend the August recess arguing that they have accomplished much of their agenda while challenging Bush on Iraq and a wide range of oversight investigations. But they realize that in the long run, they need a legislative strategy that matches their political agility.

"Eyes are always on the next election," Baker said. "They are asking themselves, 'Do we want this legislation now, or do we want to still have this fight later on, when it will still be politically advantageous?'"
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