From 'Slow Bleed' to Larry Craig, a Capitol Year in Review
Barely a month into their newfound power, the House Democrats huddled together in the Kingsmill Resort in historic Williamsburg, Va., trying to chart their course for 2007. On the Friday night of that weekend they heard from the most preeminent Democrat in the land: former President Bill Clinton, who urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's comrades to take a cautious approach, find compromises with President Bush and show voters they can govern effectively.
"If you can't get a dollar and you can get a dime, take a dime every time," Clinton told the lawmakers, according to one attendee who kept notes on the talk. "Make incremental progress if you can." In hindsight it was good advice, but the new Democratic leaders brushed it aside as they repeatedly tried to win "dollars" every time.
Only in the final, dreary weeks of the session did the Democrats settle for "dimes." But by then, the party had blown its opportunity to make good on the promises that had propelled it into power in the first place: namely, ending the war in Iraq, restoring fiscal discipline in Washington and trying to rein in the president's powers. As my colleague, Jonathan Weisman, and I noted in a story in Thursday's Washington Post, Democrats instead closed the first session of the 110th Congress with House votes that sent Bush $70 billion in war funding, with no strings attached, and a $50 billion alternative-minimum-tax measure that shattered their pledge not to add to the federal budget deficit."
Judging from the comments and e-mails to the story, the most ardent supporters of the new Democratic majority fell into two camps. One heavily blames Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republican leaders, whose tough procedural tactics forced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) into attempting a record number of efforts to choke off GOP filibusters. But the other camp faults Reid and Pelosi (D-Calif.) for not doing more to beat President Bush, particularly on Iraq war funding issues.
There are many explanations for how the Democrats got to this strange place, but Capitol Briefing will offer a handful that were critical to defining the tone and the direction of this extraordinary year. The Democrats made many missteps, but so too did the Republicans. And in the end, the public has registerd its disappointment with the new Congress with near historic lows in public approval ratings.
But first, on a personal note, this is a farewell of sorts, as I move from being a blogger for washingtonpost.com to my new job as congressional correspondent for the Washington Post newspaper. My on-line successor beginning next month will be Ben Pershing, a once and future co-worker of mine who has spent the past 10 years rising through the ranks of Roll Call. Smart, witty and analytical, Ben's voice will bring keen new insights to Capitol Briefing - albeit with a West Coast view of the world since he's a native Los Angelino. (No more Philadelphia Eagles references on this blog!)
With that, let's look back at 2007 through the eyes of this blog, at what went wrong for both the Democrats and the Republicans, as a way of looking forward to what might come to pass in 2008:
The "Slow Bleed" moment. By mid-February Pelosi brought to the House floor a non-binding resolution that put the House on record opposing Bush's troop surge of an additional 30,000 or so soldiers into Iraq. Many Republicans expected several dozen from their ranks to break away in what would have been a symbolic vote against the Iraq strategy. Instead, just 48 hours before the vote, the Politico's John Bresnahan broke a story detailing Rep. John Murtha's (D-Pa.) plan to force Bush out of Iraq, a strategy that Republicans dubbed the "slow bleed" plan. It was a galvanizing rally cry for the GOP. In the end, just 17 Republicans voted with Democrats against the surge, laying the groundwork for what would become a yearlong frustration for House and Senate Democrats who were stunned by how many Republicans stuck with Bush.
Â· With Friends Like These. The single greatest success for Democrats in 2007 was likely their oversight investigations in both chambers. From probes of the Pentagon's handling of the death of NFL star-turned-special forces ace Pat Tillman to those missing White House e-mails of Karl Rove's, Democrats made the administration take notice. And quite often Republicans were left to shrug their shoulders and agree. The probes of Alberto R. Gonzales's firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 epitomized the zealous and efficient oversight by House and Senate Judiciary committees. On April 19, the attorney general appeared before the Senate panel to tell his side of the story. It was brutal. He stammered, he dodged, he pleaded ignorance, he pleaded and he pleaded. Finally, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the most conservative Senate Republican, told the beleaguered Gonzales he needed to "suffer the consequences" of those prosecutors. "I believe that the best way to put this behind us is your resignation," he said. Stunningly, it took Gonzales four more months to realize his political capital in Washington was destroyed. He announced his resignation Aug. 27.
Â· "Expletive you" Immigration Showdown. The Senate devoted almost six weeks of its precious floor time to a tenuously crafted immigration reform compromise, which was backed by Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Reid and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and spanning the ideological gamut. However, it became apparent the bill was doomed during private meeting McCain attended in mid-May. When a colleague questioned McCain's commitment to the issue because he'd been away on the presidential campaign trail, the ex-Navy pilot cursed at his colleague and told him he knew more about the issue than anyone else in the room. McCain's famous temper got the best of him. The immigration bill died in late June amid conservative backlash, and days later McCain's presidential campaign apparatus unraveled as well, mired in debt and campaign disorder. He's still in the race, but as a long shot, not the frontrunner.
Â· Iraq-around-the-clock. On the night of July 17 rolling into the morning of July 18, Reid pulled a stunt to illustrate to the anti-war voters that beating a GOP filibuster on Iraq funding issues was virtually impossible. The chamber debated the issue for 24 straight hours. Reid was unable to pick up GOP support when a vote on the Levin-Reed withdrawal language was held on day two. Like so many votes before and after, McConnell stymied the Democrats. And the anti-war base, judging from its reaction to this week's award of $70 billion in unrestricted war funds, still does not understand why Reid can't win on this issue.
Â· Retirements. In one fell swoop in early August, a group of veteran House Republicans all announced their intentions to resign rather than seek re-election next year, including former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). As much as Democrats have had trouble passing legislation, they continue to be in much greater political shape heading into next year because so many GOP veterans in both chambers have vacated seats Democrats now think they can win.
Â· The money chase. Not only are Republicans facing dire political straits because of retirements, they are also dramatically cash strapped compared to the Democrats. This week's fundraising reports show the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee holding $31 million in cash, compared to just $2.3 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee. That will allow Democrats to go on the offensive next year.
Â· The "wide stance" defense. Hold up your hand if you could identify Larry Craig in a police lineup before his arrest and guilty plea for disorderly conduct in a men's restroom? Now, the Idaho senator is a national laughingstock who refuses to resign. It surely was the you-won't-believe-this-story of the year. Plus we all get to relive the storyline in Minneapolis at the Republican National Convention, kicking off Sept. 1, 2008 - the one-year anniversary of when Craig first pledged to resign in disgrace!
Â· Polling peril. In mid-November a Gallup Poll revealed what many inside the Capitol had known for months: that the public's approval of the Congress was at historically low proportions. All sides of this argument can debate the causes for this low esteem - obstructionist Republicans, weak-kneed Democrats, Bush's veto-pen intransigence - but the facts are the facts. The public doesn't like what it saw this year.
Â· A Whole Lott of Dollars. Nothing may symbolize the state of Congress - the Republican Party, life in the minority and the overall lack of fun these days in the Capitol - more than Trent Lott's retirement. The Mississippi Republican is not running from scandal, not running from a pending indictment. No, Lott just wants more money now, at 66, because he's not having fun anymore in the Senate. He's the first senator to ever leave midterm to become a lobbyist. In his farewell speech, after 35 years in the House and Senate, Lott thanked his colleagues and gave us all a lesson to follow. "I believe whatever you do in your life you should find a way to enjoy it and have fun. I have to say I have had fun in the Senate because I really enjoyed it. That is all there is to it," he said.
Well, if that's all there is to it, I hope I've measured up to that very standard. This blog, this year, has been fun for me. I hope it's been fun for you readers as well. And, remember, keep commenting next year. It's your blog, too. Happy New Year. --pk
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