While Democratic leaders can be moved on tax issues, it will be harder to move them on questions of war and peace. A few House Democrats continue, however, to push for such a debate. Representative Tammy Baldwin wrote a letter on December 6 to President Bush expressing concern about civilian casualties in Afghanistan, calling for the military component of the current war on terrorism to be defined as narrowly as possible and suggesting that any potential expansion of military activity should be carefully evaluated. The letter, signed also by Representatives Kucinich, Sam Farr, Lynn Woolsey, Lynn Rivers, Cynthia McKinney and Jim McDermott, adds, "We are concerned by those in your administration and among our own ranks in the Congress who appear to be making the case for broad expansion of this military campaign beyond Afghanistan. Without presenting clear and compelling evidence that other nations were involved in the September 11 attacks, it is inappropriate to expand the conflict."
Baldwin, who is still waiting for a response from the White House, says that she and her allies will use their positions on key committees to try to expand the debate. She herself is a member of the House Judiciary Committee. "I'm going to be very keen on having oversight hearings on the application of the new powers that have been given to the Attorney General," she says of a move backed by Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the committee. Whether Conyers can convince committee chair James Sensenbrenner, a quirky Republican who was angered by the Administration's pressure tactics on behalf of the antiterrorism bill, remains one of the bigger "ifs" of this Congress.
Beyond questions of economics and war, Congress will deal with dozens of issues that at any other time would take center stage. The Enron scandal, particularly the role that corporate campaign contributions played in shielding the company from adequate government regulation, has provided new impetus for campaign finance reform. "Enron sums up everything that is wrong with soft money in politics," says Feingold, co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold legislation to ban soft-money contributions. Noting that only four more signatures are needed on a discharge position to force Republican leaders to permit a House vote on reform legislation, the Wisconsin Democrat says, "Having this scandal break just as we come back into session puts us in a superb position to argue that these issues cannot be avoided any longer."
That optimism does not extend to other key issues for progressives. Senators Paul Wellstone, John Kerry and a few others will seek to amend House-passed legislation granting the President fast-track trade negotiating authority, but it will be difficult to beat in the free-trade-friendly Senate. And there is broad frustration with the compromises that have already undermined hopes for a farm bill that would significantly tip the federal-policy balance in favor of family farmers. Activists are more hopeful about blocking the nomination of Iowan Tom Dorr to serve as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. Dorr, an ally of corporate agribusiness, is in trouble not just with farm groups but also with civil rights organizations angered over racially insensitive statements he has made.
Hearings on the Dorr nomination, which are planned for late January or early February, could become a flashpoint for Democratic anger over Bush's overriding of the Senate confirmation process to make recess appointments of two controversial nominees, Solicitor General Eugene Scalia and Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich. The Dorr fight would then set the stage for wrangles over Bush's judicial nominees.
Ultimately, however, the big battles of this Congress will have less to do with high-profile clashes over presidential nominees than the debate over the economy that will be framed by the Bush budget. That budget is expected to include a few bipartisan nods--perhaps an endorsement of election reform, his aides say--but it will at core be a bold reassertion of the Reagan approach to creative bookkeeping. With its outlays for corporate welfare, new tax cuts for the rich and deficit spending to finance a major military and "homeland defense" buildup, it will leave little room for the sort of domestic initiatives that might patch a few holes in an already tattered safety net. There is a logical Democratic response--an alternative agenda that protects the victims of recession and redirects federal spending to initiatives that actually create jobs--but it remains to be seen whether the Democrats will advance it.
How Democrats respond to the Bush budget will define the politics of 2002. If they opt for an assault that is at once fiscally and morally responsible--scaling back the Bush tax cuts of last year and halting new tax cuts for corporations--they could set the stage for a populist revolt against the new Reaganomics. They might even score the sort of success that aggressive progressives did in the recession election of 1982, when a push for a $1 billion jobs bill and warnings from Kennedy about threats to Social Security helped Democrats pick up twenty-six seats in the House--four times what is needed to shift control this year. If, on the other hand, Congressional Democrats choose the route of least resistance, they could well find themselves losing another political war to an amiable Republican President with a talent for spinning patriotic platitudes, tax cuts for the rich and deficit spending into political gold.