“They like this war,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of Republicans last week. “They want this war to continue…Republicans have made it very clear that this is just not George Bush’s war, this is the war of the Republicans in Congress.”
These were certainly un-collegial words, coming from the most powerful Democrat in Congress. But you must excuse the Speaker if she is impolitic at times — she is under an awful lot of pressure at the moment.
After a full year of partisan rancor and insubstantial political votes taken on the House floor, her Congress is crashing on several important deadlines this week as members prepare to leave for Christmas. And Pelosi is about to be owned by the Republican minority.
That’s right: By the end of this week, she will likely have lost five major legislative battles, almost simultaneously.
1) The first and biggest Republican victory comes in the form of the omnibus spending bill, which funds nearly every government agency. Not only does the bill, which was handed down yesterday morning, match President Bush’s funding levels, but it also contains none of the so-called “policy-riders” that Republicans had most feared, such as the abolition of the government’s Mexico City policy and even an expected expansion of union-backed “prevailing wage” rules. Democrats had no choice — they simply ran out of time, mostly because they thought it to their advantage to run down the clock (on this and the issues that follow). The best they seem to have come up with is a cut in abstinence education funding and money for needle exchanges in the District of Columbia. They are even patting themselves on the back for keeping out certain Republican provisions (English in the workplace), as though they were in the minority.
Conservatives have complained loudly (and rightly) that the bill is something of a “Christmas Tree,” containing more than 9,000 earmarked pork projects and $11 billion in so-called “emergency funding” (actually a widely used accounting gimmick to make the final number appear closer to the president’s request). The bill has other defects as well, yet Republicans are amazed at what they have gotten. They can’t believe it, and they are making heroic (if unsuccessful) efforts not to crow too loudly before it passes. This summer, Republicans could not have imagined negotiating Democrats down to this funding level — $933 billion in regular discretionary spending, right at the level of President Bush’s request.
“It’s probably better than anything we would have passed, if we were still the majority,” one conservative Republican Senate staffer remarked sardonically on Monday. He was not the only Republican I could find to make this admission.
2) The omnibus itself represents a major Republican victory, but that’s not all. The bill currently includes only funding for the Afghanistan war, but by the time it passes it will include full and unconditional Iraq supplemental funding, ending yet another legislative crisis in the Republicans’ favor. The Iraq money will be added by amendment in the Senate. This portion of the amended bill will then pass the House largely on Republican votes.
In essence, Democrats are capitulating on the Iraq question for a second time this year, after being elected with a clear mandate to hasten the unpopular war’s end — a bitter double-defeat that comes after dozens of symbolic votes on the war. And Democratic House members will be voting (probably today) to start a process that they know will continue the war funding — voting for it before voting against it. It will enrage the Left and, oddly, make President Bush — who has never understood, negotiated with, nor cooperated well with even Republican congresses — appear to be some kind of legislative mastermind.
3) On the Alternative Minimum Tax, Democrats have already lost this one through inaction. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Senate Democrats, who already agreed to fixing this broken portion of the tax code on Republicans’ terms (without raising taxes to compensate), are watching impatiently as their House colleagues refuse to acknowledge that they lost this issue weeks ago. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) will adjourn the Senate, leaving Pelosi alone with the undesirable “take-it-or-leave-it” choice of fixing the AMT on Republicans’ terms — with no tax hike — or else passing nothing and causing 25 million American households to overpay on their taxes next spring by an average $2,000.
This latter option has always been viewed as politically unpalatable, and it will cost Democrats dearly if they do nothing. Even if they pass the Republican bill, they will have brought the issue past a key deadline that guarantees late tax refunds for millions of Americans, sure to become a political issue next year.
4) The Energy bill currently before Congress represents an utterly valueless hodgepodge of regular corporate welfare (ethanol mandates) combined with “green” corporate welfare and penalties to consumers (increased fuel-economy standards). For that reason, it has broad bi-partisan support, each party having different priorities. Earlier this month, Pelosi broke a pre-existing deal with Senate Republicans and put a bill on the House floor that appeared to maximize her negotiating potential. To the consternation of several powerful House Democrats and Sen. Pete Domenici (R., N.M.), it included two environmentalist provisions — the Renewable Portfolio Standard, which forces utilities to generate or purchase a certain percentage of their electricity from “renewable” sources (not including hydroelectric or nuclear), and tax hikes on domestic oil production. The revenues were expected to pay for promotion of “green” power (more corporate welfare).
The thought was that the Senate might reject the RPS, but would keep the provisions closing “tax loopholes.” Then last Thursday, the Senate unexpectedly rejected both provisions and passed an energy bill consisting mostly of “non-green” corporate welfare. The bill is expected to pass today containing neither provision. Pelosi played her best cards and lost again.
5) One of the Democrats most promising issues this year has been the State Childrens’ Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP). They have sought to turn the Clinton-era program, a subsidy for poor children, into a free lunch for the middle class. Republicans, who hoped merely to extend the current program beyond the next election, were pummeled rhetorically for their resistance to the change. Yet after last night’s negotiations, sources on the Hill say that they are about to get exactly what they wanted — another extension of the program, as it exists, through March 2009. The Democrats are getting certain minor provisions in return, but nothing that makes up for the loss of their moral trump card, and an election-year vote on children’s insurance.
Republicans have failed to capitalize on their best opportunities this year — they will particularly regret their failure to take a consistent stand on earmarks and exploit them as a political issue. But the real story of the session of Congress now ending is how pathetic and rudderless the Democratic leadership has been. The last twelve months have been characterized by partisan rancor, endless committee investigations, and several dozen meaningless, symbolic Iraq votes designed only to pander to the Left without actually ending the war. Through it all, Pelosi and other leaders failed to make a serious effort to pass necessary legislation until now. As the clock runs out, they are being forced to accept bills — good and bad — that Republicans could have passed.
How did it come to this? To be sure, Senate Republicans have the numbers to block some legislation by filibuster. They probably would have held the line regardless on some issues — the AMT, for example. Yet good-faith negotiations probably would have produced a compromise on SCHIP, the spending bills, and the energy bill, with Democrats and moderate Republicans providing enough votes to pass something at least palatable for a presidential signature. Yet there was little good faith or negotiation. On the energy bill, Pelosi was violating a pre-existing agreement on how to proceed with the bill — this process problem made it easier for Senate Republicans to convince moderate colleagues such as Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) to vote no.
On S-CHIP, Democrats decided to turn the issue into a political blood sport rather than work toward a compromise. They ran ads against House Republicans on the issue while the debate was still going on, instead of building a serious coalition that could have reached a serious compromise and forced the president’s hand in expanding the welfare state.
House Democrats’ inflexibility and subordination of policy to politics led them to Waterloo this week. They are a majority that has used the tactics of a minority, and it hasn’t worked very well.
Meanwhile, the minority party — a party that is likely to stay in the minority through the next election — is routing Pelosi on five bills in a single week. Next year is an election year, in which little will likely be accomplished. So the second session of this Congress may prove to be as mercifully unproductive as the first.
– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.