- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2007

With the Senate and House out of town for the Memorial Day period, and five months of legislating under their belts, it’s a good time to take stock of the triumphs, foibles and surprises of the 110th Congress. While final conclusions are premature, one thing is clear: This is a Congress of contradictions. An unambiguous formula for legislative success is emerging, yet whether Democrats believe this particular route is the best path toward political victory remains a mystery. And Congress’ slumping poll numbers suggest voters view the new legislative barons the same as the old ones.

At one level, the Democrats’ central problem is one of over-promising and under-delivering. For example, of the 27 measures signed into law as of earlier this week, about half are bills naming federal buildings or roads. The other half already had passed last year under a Republican Congress or are smaller non-controversial measures enacted without any opposition. By far the most significant bill is the supplemental Iraq war-funding legislation, which passed with more than twice as many Republican votes (194) as Democrats (86 voted “yes,” while 140 voted “no”) in the House, and only after the White House sustained an effort to veto an earlier bill containing objectionable language concerning troop withdrawal. Democrats vowed not to give up the fight, but the first round clearly went to President Bush and congressional Republicans.

Many of the items in the House “Six for ‘06” agenda also seem like a bit of an overreach given the Democrats’ narrow majority. The slogan produced more interesting January press releases than substantive change on issues like lower prescription-drug prices, college-tuition relief, stem-cell research and implementation of the September 11 Commission recommendations. The minimum wage hike only passed because the package included bipartisan tax relief for smallbusinesses spearheaded by Republicans.

Democrats also came up short fulfilling campaign promises with respect to procedural reforms. Instead of loosening up the process in the House and allowing Republicans to offer alternative policies, Democrats routinely shut down Republicans’ ability to offer alternative policies through House floor amendments. Now Democrats threaten to further clamp down on Republicans’ ability to offer motions to recommit legislation, one of the few arrows in the minority’s parliamentary quiver. A move sure to generate howls of Republican protest and one that will further erode slumping congressional approval.

Yet despite the rhetoric versus reality gap, vitriol between the parties over the war in Iraq and the mixed government institutional circumstances of Mr. Bush in the White House and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Congress is also producing some positive movement.

Take trade policy. Following the Democrats’ victory in November, many Washington observers believed the prospects of further movement toward bipartisan trade legislation would go the way of the hula-hoop. Not so. Due to the tenacious efforts of Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel of New York, the panel’s senior Republican, Jim McCrery of Louisiana and Bush administration Trade Representative Susan Schwab, the outlines of a new bipartisan consensus on trade have emerged. Rather than being relegated to a legislative ash heap, these trade leaders brokered a compromise that makes a new consensus a possibility. In the midst of very strong odds against such an outcome, trade policy looks like a winning congressional contradiction.

Immigration reform is also lumbering toward a contradictory outcome. While the fragile compromise winding its way through the Senate could come unglued at any time, it’s odd that in the midst of the howling ill winds between Democrats and the White House, a measure Mr. Bush has so clearly identified as his main second-term legislative legacy could garner the kind of support from Senate Democrats it has to date. Regardless of where you stand on the substance of immigration reform, the bipartisanship exhibited thus far is a case study in legislative contradictions.

The secret to success in all these cases — raising the minimum wage, trade and immigration — is not a contradiction. It’s called bipartisanship, and it’s understandable why some Republicans might resist. “Legislative accomplishments only remind voters why they elected a Democratic Congress,” one Republican lawmaker said. Yet despite its apparent political popularity, Democrats only want to swallow bipartisanship in small doses. Notwithstanding its appeal with voters, we see a lot less reaching across the aisle from the new majority on issues like Social Security reform, health care or the war in Iraq. Therein may lay the biggest contradiction of all.

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