With the Democratic National Convention just a week away, the mood of Congressional Democrats heading into their all-important political rally verges on the smug.
Democrats, often with the help of a few centrist Republicans, have outmaneuvered GOP leaders this year on a series of votes on Republican and White House legislative priorities. These include recent high-profile losses on issues involving gay marriage and the GOP’s “tort reform” agenda in the Senate, and a near-loss on Patriot Act rulemaking in the House.
With just 23 legislative days left until Congress’ targeted Oct. 1 adjournment, Democrats feel they are in better shape than ever to make the case that Republicans have handed them a big political gift — a “do-nothing” Congress.
Even conservative columnist Robert Novak has savaged Senate Republican leaders. Novak wrote Monday that they were on a “catastrophic course” and had committed “multiple parliamentary blunders” by failing to win legislative victories on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and a measure to send more class-action lawsuits to federal court.
And House GOP leaders were embarrassed recently by their near loss on a Democratic amendment to prohibit the Justice Department from demanding library and bookstore records in terrorism investigations. (The White House had threatened to veto the measure if it prevailed.)
Of course, Democrats, as the minority party in both chambers, are in the fortunate position of being able to point out the foibles of the Republicans in power without having to prove their own legislative prowess, Republicans often point out.
“I can tell you it’s a lot easier being Minority Leader than Majority Leader,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said in a recent interview. “If you do something bad in the minority, the majority gets the blame for it. It’s hilarious really, but that’s the truth of what it’s really like.”
Still, even Lott has bemoaned the fact that Republicans appear to have given Democrats lots of fodder to portray the majority as inept.
“The best message is, Republicans are getting things done in spite of Democrats, if that’s true. But it’s not true,” said Lott. “We’re not getting things done.”
Judging by the Democrats’ schedule this week, they’re taking full advantage of the opening Republicans have given them.
House Democrats will hold a press conference Thursday to highlight what they see as the House GOP’s failures to address key legislative issues. They’ll be able to cite the Republicans’ failure to pass a bicameral budget resolution, as well as lagging Congressional action on an all-important highway funding bill, a measure to end European trade sanctions on U.S. goods, and must-pass appropriations to keep the government running.
“Leaving here this week, we want to make sure people know that there’s a lot left undone,” said Stacey Farnen, spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “If we had Democratic House and a Democratic leader in the White House, these things would be getting done.”
House Democrats are also planning a news conference today urging action on legislation to increase the reliability of the nation’s electricity grid, said Farnen. With the one-year anniversary of last year’s massive Northeast and Midwest blackout on Aug. 14, Democrats will accuse Republicans of hampering passage of the bill in order to enshrine a slew of tax breaks for big energy companies in a separate comprehensive energy policy bill.
“We’re going into the summer recess, and that’s when it happened last time,” said Farnen, referring to the blackout that affected nearly 50 million people in the United States. “And a year later, Congress has done nothing.”
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats plan a push for various health care bills this week as a way to draw contrast with Republicans, who are forcing a vote today on a contentious judicial nominee that Democrats are expected to filibuster.
Using procedural maneuvers to get their health-care measures onto the official Senate calendar, Democrats hope to make Republicans object to votes on allowing the government to negotiate for lower-priced drugs for Medicare beneficiaries and on requiring the government to automatically sign up low-income Medicare beneficiaries for the drug-card program, among other bills.
Depending on the outcome of this week’s Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee markup of a bill to allow drug reimportation from other countries, Democrats may also try to force floor action on that measure, said Todd Webster, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
“With the Senate wasting time and with many urgent needs going unmet, Senate Democrats will undertake a new strategy to force important issues to the Senate calendar,” Webster said in an e-mail. “Since Republicans have prevented amendments from being offered to legislation in some instances and reneged on commitments to allow votes on other legislation, Democrats must take this extraordinary step.”
Part of the Democrats strategy is to paint Republicans as too focused on esoteric issues, such as today’s judicial-nomination fight and last week’s Senate vote to ban gay marriage that failed to net even a majority of Senators, much less the 67 votes needed to pass the constitutional amendment.
Rather than face what might prove to be a similar defeat in the House on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, House leaders this week plan to vote on a harder-to-explain bill that would essentially force fights over gay marriage into state courts — thereby preventing federal courts from invalidating a federal law that allows states to refuse recognition of gay couples married in other jurisdictions.
Of course, that vote may be overshadowed by news coverage of the report to be issued Thursday by the commission investigating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Indeed, Democrats are pleased as punch that the Bush administration’s intelligence failures will be on full display right as they head into their convention to tout their presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) — and their case for taking back the House and Senate from Republican control.