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Strategery

How Republicans prevailed on the Hill.

11:00 PM, Dec 26, 2007 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
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THE HOUSE AND SENATE squeezed through last-minute bills in a marathon session last week akin to the final exams period some members' college-aged children just muddled through. A bleary-eyed, sleep deprived House and Senate finally emerged with the passage of some key pieces of legislation on energy, the Iraq war, the alternative minimum tax, children's health insurance, and a massive omnibus spending bill. In the end, Republicans proved to be the more astute bunch, pushing through Bush's lame duck agenda despite their minority status.

With Democrats emerging victorious just a year ago in the 2006 midterm elections claiming a mandate to drive the country in a new direction, one would have hardly predicted headlines like "Bush, GOP prevail in host of Hill issues" in the Associated Press, "Dems cave on spending" in the Hill, and the Politico's "Liberals lose bigtime in budget battle."


Leading mainstream publications agreed that Democrats had surrendered to Republican demands, and the left's base was utterly furious at the outcomes. In reaction to the $70 billion Iraq and Afghanistan troop funding vote, comments such as, "You are kidding yourself if you think the Democratic party stands for anything--clearly they do not--This is an outrage," were posted on Daily Kos. Huffington Post entries included, "Democrats lose evey [sic] time becuase [sic] they are a pack of spineless cowards".

Even Republicans were surprised with the outcome. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell remarked, "If we had been having this press conference last January and I had suggested that a Republican minority in Congress would be able to meet the president's top line, you all would have laughed at me."

"We couldn't have scripted this to work out better for Republicans they conceded almost every issue," said Rep. Paul Ryan, (R-WI).

Not only did Democrats eventually meet Bush's required $933 billion appropriations spending level, they also capitulated on unconditional funding for the troops, an energy plan without corporate taxes, a one-year patch to the alternative minimum tax without additional taxes (a $50 billion violation of Democrats' pay-as-you-go principles), and a straight extension of SCHIP without a large expansion.

At first, the record is baffling, but the explanation for Republican success is simple. Not only was superior "strategery" involved on the part of the minority, to borrow a word from Bush's lexicon, but equally important was Democrats' miscalculations.

Republicans decided early on to stick together on issues such as taxes and Iraq, said one senior Republican aide. Democrats were much more fractured. One Washington Post headline declared, "Democrats Blaming Each Other for Failures." The article cited House Democrats accusing their Senate counterparts of selling out and folding.

In December 2006, Reid said in an interview, "legislation is the art of compromise and consensus building and I'm going to compromise." House Democrats didn't embrace this theme.

They either failed to realize or didn't want to realize that anything they proposed still had to meet approval in the Senate, where compromise and coalition building are unavoidable, with 60 votes required to move any legislation through. "It took some people 11 months to figure this out," said one senior Republican aide.

From the beginning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi set up a structure that didn't emphasize debate and hearings, said Republican California Rep. Kevin McCarthy. The controversial spots were never worked out in the far-left appeasing bills that passed through the House.

Even after the Senate voted a resounding 88 to 5 in favor of an AMT patch without offsets in the beginning of December, the House passed another version, attached more taxes to make up for the lost revenue, and sent it back to the Senate. The Senate had to vote three times just to show the House Democrats that it did not have the required 60 votes to pass a patch with offsets.


Democrats were not only divided, they also misjudged the public's perception. The "general aversion to tax hikes" worked to the Republicans' advantage, and the overall success of the war in Iraq also played a key factor, said the senior Republican aide.


Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid commented right before the recess, "I share the frustration of the American people who want to see real change." But Republicans argue Reid's idea of change is not in line with that of most Americans.

They "got the wrong message from the election," which wasn't one of a "repudiation of conservative values," said Ryan. It was a call for "clean and transparent government."