- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

Democrats, eager to trump President Bush’s bully pulpit on Republican causes, are using their position as the majority party in Congress to push an agenda they hope will propel them to victory in November’s elections.

Much of their platform is unpassable or faces presidential vetoes that likely won’t be overridden, including measures to end the Iraq war, limit the Bush administration’s surveillance authority and roll back nearly $18 billion in oil-company tax breaks to pay for renewable-energy incentives and energy-conservation rewards.

But even in defeat, Democratic leaders are confident that by highlighting their differences with Republicans, they can show the electorate what Washington could accomplish if Democrats controlled the White House and held larger majorities in the House and Senate.

“The public expects Congress to work together and the president to sign legislation into law,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

“However, if there are clear differences between Democrats and Republicans … then [Democrats] will move forward, because it’s important for the American people to know that this is what we stand for,” he said.

Congressional Democrats have accused Republicans and the Bush administration of playing partisan games by stubbornly obstructing the legislative progress.

Of Mr. Bush’s nine vetoes during his presidency, eight have come at the expense of Democratic-crafted bills since the party took control of Congress in January 2007. Only one Bush veto — a bill authorizing $23 billion in new water projects — was successfully overridden by Congress, last November.

“Just because there’s a veto threat doesn’t mean we’re not going to move ahead on those [measures] — we will,” Mr. Elshami said.

Democrats have complained that congressional Republicans repeatedly have killed Democratic measures by using parliamentary procedures, such as motions to recommit in the House and filibusters in the Senate.

But Republicans say they’re only trying to improve legislation that Democrats have developed without their input.

“We’re using the very limited tools available to the minority,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

“On a score of other issues, [Democrats] have chosen a go-it-alone, my way or the highway model that guarantees that bills often will not pass the Senate, and for certain will not be signed into law.”

Democrats have little alternative than to push ahead with measures they know have little hope of becoming law because the party doesn’t hold a “veto-proof” two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, said Tom Mann, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution, a liberal Washington think tank.

“Unlike [presidents] Reagan and Clinton, Bush is not interested in doing business with the other party unless they simply accept his agenda,” Mr. Mann said.

“As a consequence, much of what they will do [this year] will be geared to the fall campaign,” he said.

Among the issues on which Democrats have taken a hard line is a bitterly partisan debate over a proposed overhaul of the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

The key sticking point is a Republican demand to give telecommunications companies legal immunity for their participation in a domestic surveillance program the Bush administration authorized shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The secret program circumvented a court that oversees such activities.

Two weeks ago the House, for the second time in recent months, passed a FISA bill without the immunity provision. But the measure fell about 60 votes shy of the two-thirds needed to overturn a promised White House veto. No Republicans voted for the bill.

House Democrats used the occasion to accuse the president and congressional Republicans of recklessly infringing on the privacy rights of Americans, an issue party candidates are expected to repeat on the campaign trail this year.

The Democratic leadership in both houses of Congress also repeatedly forced votes the past year aimed at setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, even when the proposals were doomed to fail.

And even though Republicans and the White House aren’t likely to budge on the issue again this year, Democrats are gearing up to make additional troop-withdrawal proposals when war-funding measures come before Congress as early as next month.

Democratic leaders also have orchestrated votes to target individual Republicans, such as Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, who is considered his party’s most vulnerable senator in this fall’s elections.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, staged a vote last month on a proposal to add $40 billion to an economic-stimulus plan that provided the party an easy shot at Mr. Sununu.

Immediately after the vote, which died by a one-vote margin, Democratic groups blamed Mr. Sununu with casting the deciding vote against sending at least $500 checks to senior citizens and disabled veterans.

The next day, both chambers passed a $170 billion stimulus package that included rebate checks for low-income retirees and disabled veterans. But Mr. Sununu’s earlier vote is enshrined in the Congressional Record and available for campaign attack ads.

S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

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