Watch CBSN Live

Minority Power!

This column was written by Fred Barnes.

The biggest surprise in Washington in 2007 is who's turned out to be the strongest force in town. It's not Democrats, though they control the House and the Senate. It's not a bipartisan alliance of moderates, who often imagine themselves as pivotal but never are. And it's certainly not a conservative coalition, if only because there aren't enough conservative Democrats in Congress to fill a closet at the Heritage Foundation. The most powerful group is President Bush and congressional Republicans.

But of course, you say. A Republican president and Republican legislators are a natural coalition. Except not in this case. After the calamitous 2006 election, there was no love lost between the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Republicans blamed Bush for losing Congress, while he and his aides felt congressional Republicans had largely brought disaster on themselves. Full-scale cooperation seemed unlikely. But it's happened.

True, Bush and the Republicans aren't dominant. They're a minority, but an unusually effective one. One measure of this: At the end of 2007, there will be more American troops in Iraq than when Democrats took over Congress in January. Another: Democrats have momentum on no domestic issue, not even health care. A third: Senate Republicans last week defeated an amendment urging Bush not to pardon former White House aide Scooter Libby and won overwhelming passage of another that says terrorists jailed at Guantánamo shouldn't be transferred to U.S. soil.

There's more, much more. Of the "six for '06" bills touted by House Democrats, only one has become law. And that one, which raises the minimum wage, passed not on its own, but only because it was tacked onto the Iraq funding bill. Senate Democrats have fared no better. Majority Leader Harry Reid listed 10 issues on which he wanted action. His lone success so far is the minimum wage hike.

Republicans shouldn't get swelled heads over Democratic failures, though the poll numbers for the Democratic Congress are anemic (13 percent approval in the Zogby poll). Democrats largely set the agenda in Washington, can hold all the "oversight" hearings they want, and have the votes to block confirmation of Bush nominees. Every national poll shows Democrats are more popular than Republicans, and their stand on most issues is preferred. They are raising boatloads more money than Republicans at both the presidential and congressional levels for the first time in memory.

But in Washington, Democrats are stymied, foiled, and frustrated. Republicans have hindered or obstructed them at almost every turn. Last week, Democrats and the media were excited that Reid got 56 votes, four short of the required 60, to impose cloture on an anti-Iraq war amendment, then pass it by a simple 50-vote majority. The assessment was Democrats were gaining, Republicans and Bush crumbling. But on the next cloture vote — on the Democrats' most highly touted effort to force troop withdrawals — they got only 52 votes.

This doesn't mean the war is now a political plus for Republicans. It remains a huge drag. But Republicans have won the argument that Congress, before mandating a retreat in Iraq, should wait at least until General David Petraeus reports to Washington in September on how his counterinsurgency strategy — the "surge" — is doing.

Republicans have an inadvertent ally on Iraq — Reid, as maladroit a Senate leader as we've seen in years. His tactic of calling an all-night Senate session stirred more guffaws than favorable press reviews. His wildly partisan and often false statements have tended to drive wavering Republicans to Bush's side, instead of luring them to vote with Democrats. And his decision to yank the defense authorization bill off the floor after the loss of cloture votes was widely viewed as peevish and counterproductive.

Next to Iraq, congressional Republicans have had their greatest success in killing Democratic bills or stripping offensive provisions from them. Bush's veto, sustained by the House, wiped out the effort to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. The House passed legislation to eliminate the need for a secret ballot in union organizing elections and to have the federal government negotiate drug prices in the Medicare prescription drug program. Senate filibusters shelved both bills.

From the energy bill, Republican senators removed a tax increase for oil companies and a requirement that utilities use renewable fuels like wind power for 15 percent of their energy. This made the bill so innocuous it passed easily.

Democrats held out for months against Republicans on the bill implementing recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The White House demanded they drop the provision, urged by organized labor but not by the commission, allowing Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees to unionize.

Not only did the president threaten a veto, but Senate Republicans also said they would prevent the bill from going to a House-Senate conference. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is famous for inventing the tactic of blocking a bill by filibustering the naming of Senate conferees. Desperate to claim an achievement, Reid finally dropped the TSA veto-bait from the bill, which was then quickly approved.

Bush and Republicans have formed a kind of mutual encouragement society. On spending bills, House Republicans organized enough votes to ensure that Bush vetoes of spending bills would be sustained. And the president has promised to veto all of them except the appropriations for veterans.

Democratic hopes for a breakthrough now rest with the bills to expand the S-CHIP health care program and to provide a bigger subsidy for student loans. House Republicans believe they have the votes to sustain a veto of the S-CHIP bill, which provides for 10 years of health coverage but only five years of funding. (This means a large tax hike would be required after five years.) As for student loans, Bush is mulling a veto.

A reflection of Democratic disarray occurred last week after Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado proposed an amendment to the higher education bill opposing a Libby pardon. It needed 60 votes to pass, but it got only 47. Forty-nine senators voted against it.

McConnell was ready with a stinging response: an amendment attacking President Clinton for his pardons as he left office in 2001, including at least one linked to his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Before the clerk could read the McConnell amendment, Sen. Chuck Schumer, her New York colleague, spoke to Clinton and she hastily left the Senate floor.

After the reading, Reid halted proceedings for a quorum call, returning 15 minutes later with a deal. He'd "vitiate" the Libby vote, invoking a rare procedure to erase a roll call vote from Senate records, in exchange for McConnell's agreement to withdraw his amendment. McConnell agreed, and the vote was expunged, but not before Reid and Democrats were embarrassed one more time.

By Fred Barnes

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue