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The Democrats' Dilemma | The Nation

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The Democrats' Dilemma

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So long, politics? As George W. Bush mounted Operation Noble Eagle, Republicans and Democrats found little over which to disagree. In the days after the September 11 terror attack, the entire House and Senate--with the exception of one Congresswoman--approved a resolution of war that granted Bush wide latitude. (Congress declared war, but Bush will designate the enemy.) The Senate OK'd by voice vote the controversial nomination of John Negroponte to be UN ambassador. Congress passed $40 billion in emergency funds and ceded Bush great control over their disbursement. The Senate, with little deliberation, endorsed quickly prepared legislation to expand the government's ability to wiretap suspected terrorists and to order the CIA to scuttle rules on the recruitment of informants with violent pasts. A $15 billion bailout of the airline industry nearly sailed through the House. Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders hailed the sublimation of partisan differences. House majority whip Tom DeLay even jettisoned his opposition to paying back dues to the United Nations.

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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Who can say how long comity will last? The Democrats' agenda has vanished as the party tries to work out the dilemmas of being in opposition during a time of declared (if not actual) war. "We're confused, as you might imagine," says a liberal House Democrat. "My fear is that most members will give Bush everything he wants and try to adjourn as quickly as possible, not have any tough votes, no debates that might get them into trouble. Every Democratic issue is down the drain." For instance, Representative Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, suspended his almost-successful attempt at forcing Republican House leaders to bring his campaign finance reform bill up for a vote. "All efforts are on helping New York City and the Pentagon rebuild," a Meehan aide explains. House and Senate Democrats shelved provisions that imposed limits on national missile defense funding. "No one wants to look partisan now," says a Democratic Senate aide. "You can argue SDI money is better spent elsewhere, but no Democrat wants to give Bush and the Republicans the opportunity of pointing a finger and saying, 'There they go.'"

It was Bush, not a Democrat, who publicly noted that Washington must remember that a domestic agenda remains. "Sure," says a Democratic Congressional aide, "education and a patients' bill of rights, on his terms now." As members of Congress returned to Washington, Democrats were hoping the Republicans would not move fast with a proposal for a capital gains tax cut. "If they push this forward under the cover of crisis, it will be very difficult to stop," the aide remarks.

On the Democratic side, Representative Barney Frank has tried to initiate one crafty strategic thrust. The liberal Democrat drafted legislation to rescind the reduction in the top income tax rate that passed as part of Bush's tax cut. That particular cut mainly benefits the top 1 percent, and Frank would devote the billions rescued to Social Security and Medicare. "This would let us spend $100 billion on reconstruction, airport security, military action, the economy, without tapping the Social Security surplus," Frank says. "The Republicans promised not to touch Social Security; this would allow them to keep their promise."

Frank's colleagues applauded when he described the bill at a Democratic caucus meeting. But the GOPers will certainly seek to smother Frank's legislation, and they have the means to do it. Credit Frank with attempting to provide the Democrats an active position of their own. The question is, Do enough of his colleagues want one? "Great idea," says a House Democrat. "I just don't know if we're strong enough to do this."

Another unknown is whether Democrats and Republicans will skirmish over the attack-related matters that will dominate Washington. A dramatic boost in Pentagon spending appears a certainty. Will there be disagreement over how much? (Some GOPers yearn for a 25 percent increase.) The Administration will be pressing assorted law enforcement and security initiatives. Senator Pat Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has signaled that he's not eager to rubber-stamp new measures with civil liberties consequences. And Senator Russ Feingold, who chairs a judiciary subcommittee, has declared he feels "a special duty to defend our Constitution against proposals, born of an understandable desire for vengeance and justice, that would undermine the constitutional liberties that make this country what it is." Yet how much of a fight might arise? "The mood is basically to cave," says Julian Epstein, the former minority staff director of the House Judiciary Committee. But Epstein believes a partisan clash could materialize if the Republicans get greedy and push for too much.

"This all will be very frustrating," says a senior House Democratic aide. "Who knows how long a war on terrorism takes?" Noting disappointment with his leader, a Democratic Congressman remarks, "Dick Gephardt said there should be no light and no air between us and the President. But there have to be things worthy of debate. It's not political bickering to deal with the economy and civil liberties. There are debates to be had--even if most people want to run out of town."

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