- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Sometimes things are not as they appear peering through the legislative looking glass. Congress increasingly has an “Alice in Wonderland” feel to it, where statements by lawmakers and activists create a strange dissonance and legislative reality that is out of sync with political rhetoric. Yet because their press releases represent the authorized voice of the opposition, Democratic Party leaders’ idiom has an aura of validity — however phony.

There is a method to the madness. Democrats are laying political sod, preparing the ground for the 2006 congressional elections. Call it “project overreach”; like many aspects of the Democratic Party these days, it’s not a new idea — but whether it works is another story.

The present undertaking has clear antecedents. Harkening back to 1993 — the last time Democrats enjoyed unified government controlling the House, Senate and White House — they believe it was the “overreach” theme that ultimately led to the 1994 Republican Revolution, when the Republican Party took over Congress.

So turnabout is fair play, right? Last week the Wall Street Journal reported the “Democratic Senate campaign sends video to several hundred thousand supporters testing the theme of Republican overreach. ‘Nearly everything that voters are hearing out of Washington raises doubts about how Republicans are running the place,’ says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.” A new Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad charges Republicans are “out of control” and that every time they don’t get their way, “they change the rules.” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California joined in last week, saying “Republicans are engaged in an abuse of power.” Democrats hope to seize back lost gavels and majority status by pounding on Americans’ aversion to centralized power and our affinity for checks and balances.

But how are Republicans “running the place?” “While you would never know it from listening to the Democrats,” a Senate Republican leadership aide told me last week, “everything we’ve done so far this year has been bipartisan.” He’s got a point. Class-action reform, bankruptcy legislation, supplemental war funding and the highway bill passed earlier this week have all been adopted with large bipartisan majorities, including an average of 31 Democratic senators on each of these four major bills (An average of 116 Democrats supported these four bills in the House.) Add to that a budget agreement that will help “run the place” a little more smoothly.

But the clincher is the current imbroglio over federal judges. Democrats brazenly overturn two centuries of Senate precedent on judicial nominations — then they have the gall to threaten to shut down the institution if they don’t get their way. That’s Republican overreach?

Nevertheless overreach is an effective weapon if Democrats can make it stick. But it’s a big if They have some tricky factual and tactical fields to fertilize before accusations take root. Factually, it’s hard to explain why an overreaching Republican majority is passing legislation with so many Democratic votes as noted above.

And tactically, it doesn’t get any easier moving forward. Take the energy bill, already passed the House, with the Senate marking it up in committee this week. Historically, legislation like this is driven more by regional dispute than partisan conflict.

Sen. Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, is crafting a bill that normally would receive bipartisan support after negotiating many regional questions pertaining to ethanol mandates, nuclear power regulation, drilling on federal land and renewable energy subsidies, to name a few.

Yet depending on what happens in coming days on the judicial confirmation question, Democrats could hold Mr. Domenici’s bill hostage to a new round of obstructionism. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced yesterday he would invoke a rule that blocks committees from meeting two hours after the Senate goes into session, already bogging down the process. With record-high gas prices on the eve of a summer driving season, stopping an energy bill seems risky at best — reckless at worst.

Maybe this really is “Alice in Wonderland” politics after all. Perhaps someone is overreaching, but it’s not the Republicans. Could it be that changing 200 years of history on how judges get confirmed, saying Republicans are “out of control,” when many Democrats support final legislative products, and blocking an energy bill in the midst of record gasoline prices is in itself a bit of an overreach? Maybe a few Republican political consultants need to test that message.

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