Republican Cowboys

"They deal with us [Democrats] the same way they deal with our allies around the world: 'It's our way or the highway'," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer says. "'You do things our way or you don't play'."

So last week, the House Judiciary Committee passed, with an unfavorable recommendation, a constitutional amendment sponsored by Democratic Rep. Brian Baird along party lines.

All Republicans opposed it, while all Democrats favored it. Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner has a bill that would require special elections be held to fill House seats within 45 days if at least 100 members of Congress are killed in an attack. Baird's amendment would allow for temporary appointments to the House in such an event.

In his rush to dispose of the issue, Sensenbrenner ignored requests from other lawmakers, including Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, to hold hearings on their amendments.

"To prevent the country from examining the issue and the whole House from reaching a conclusion … puts party primacy over patriotism," Lofgren told me last week.

"It's become a winner-take-all system," added Lofgren, whose alternative to the Unborn Victims of Violence Act was defeated earlier this year. "With a very narrow margin, Republicans have eliminated the ability of the minority to participate at all."

There are plenty of other examples of Republicans making it hard for Democratic alternatives to get a fair hearing. Just last week, the House approved a GOP bill that would extend the alternative minimum tax for a year, even though the Democratic plan was more inclusive. And while the $18 billion GOP bill was not paid for, the Democratic alternative was.

Yet the Republican proposal passed by a vote of 333-89.

As Hoyer told me, House Republicans are following the Newt Gingrich plan of attack:

"It is a strategy to divide, confront, and create wedges," he said.

On Wednesday, he noted that debate on the alternative minimum tax "epitomizes precisely what is wrong in this House today -- the Republican leadership's refusal to seize bipartisan opportunities where they exist and its desire to turn every tax bill into a divisive, political bludgeon."

This comes just as the Bush administration asked Congress for another $25 billion for Iraq. Lawmakers weren't surprised that the administration needed more money, especially since troops are likely to be stationed there through at least the end of next year.

Don't expect this to be the last time the White House comes to Congress crying poor, either. As Appropriations Committee ranking member Rep. David Obey said last week, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and securing U.S. embassies throughout the globe -- will probably cost at least three times as much as the $25 billion supplemental appropriation.

It's ironic that the request for more money -- which will further sink the United States into deficit -- came as President Bush started his "Yes, America Can" bus tour in the Midwest. The campaign features pictures of Bush telling Americans that things are looking up and will be better in the future at the same time that he's saddling them and their children with debt. Republicans have shown they don't care about running up the national credit card -- as long as the bill comes due after Election Day.

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. Republicans could take the best parts of both plans and merge them into a consensus bill that everyone would feel good about voting for, both now and in the long term. After all, Democrats have already met them part way by offering alternatives. The least Republicans could do is hear them out.

But that's unlikely to happen, especially in an election year as partisan as this one.

"The Republican-controlled Congress refuses to fulfill its constitutional obligation to act as a check and balance on this White House," Hoyer said last week, referring to the additional money needed for Iraq.

"There are no checks and balances in Washington today." That should have been clear long before lawmakers learned, far too late, about the terrible U.S. treatment of imprisoned Iraqis. Maybe now, though, they -- and the public -- will finally realize what's going on.