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Congress returns--will the Democrats challenge Bush?

It was a mistake--and a beaut--in Matt Bivens's piece "The Enron Box" where he confused the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers. It is hereby duly acknowledged and regretted. But what really astonished us was the way it unleashed a slick triple play by the Right-Wing Conspirators (a Class C club that plays the Washington-New York corridor). You've heard of Tinker to Evers to Chance? Well, this was Wall Street Journal to The Weekly Standard to Fox News's Brit Hume. The WSJ caught Bivens's blooper; then The Weekly Standard grabbed amd waved it long enough to say "Nyah, nyah" before Brit (Mr. Inside) Hume gobbled up the ball and hinted darkly of cover-up (or something) on Fox News. This dazzling play illustrates how the opposing team will seize on a minor miscue and use it to clear George W. Bush of any involvement in the Enron scandal. OK, we admit the error shows we are sometimes sports-challenged; next time we'll check with a baseball expert like George Will. Lest the real issues be lost out in right field, however, we bring you a comment on Bush and baseball posted by the witty sportswriter Charles Pierce, a commentator on NPRs Only a Game and the author of Sports Guy: In Search of Corkball, Warroad Hockey, Hooters Golf, Tiger Woods, and the Big, Big Game. He posted it on Jim Romenesko's Media News (www.poynter.org):

"As to The Nation's unfortunate collision with the national pastime--the passage ought to read:

'When George Bush co-owned the Texas Rangers with a bunch of businessmen who had all the real money, construction began on The Ballpark At Arlington, after the ownership group finagled the eminent domain laws in order to swindle some property owners out of the market price for some valuable land. The property owners sued and won, but The Ballpark arose anyway, enabling Mr. Bush to cash out his original investment several times over without ever having done any actual work. This helped launch the successful portion of his political career, culminating in his becoming President of the United States, a job from which he took an evening off last spring in order to be the guest of Kenneth Lay for the opening of Enron Field in Houston. Mr. Lay was CEO of Enron and a well-known political supporter of the president who, these days, of course, would not recognize him from a box of turnips.'
"The Nation, I am sure, regrets the error."

Indeed we do.

For weeks, conservative commentators and Bush White House defenders have been huffing that the Enron matter is a corporate scandal, not a political controversy--that it is an affair of business sku

Battling the war
profiteers of World War I, Robert La Follette reminded America that
"wealth has never yet sacrificed itself on the altar of patriotism."
The progressive senator from Wisconsin was complaining about arms
merchants reaping excessive profits from the sale of weaponry in
1917. But La Follette's words echo with particular clarity in the
aftermath of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon because of the rise of another form of war profiteering. In
an attempt to gain the upper hand in a fight they had been losing,
Bush Administration and Congressional supporters of fast track--or,
as supporters have renamed it, "Trade Promotion Authority"--were
telling Congress Daily within hours of the September 11
attacks that terrorist threats increased the need to grant Bush
authority to negotiate a NAFTA-style free-trade area from Tierra del
Fuego to the Tundra.

With each passing day, these policy
profiteers have pumped up the volume. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley,
the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, announced,
"Passing trade promotion authority for the President would send a
strong signal to the rest of the world that the United States is
ready, willing and able to lead." The Wall Street Journal
editorial page chirped about how "not everything has changed for the
worse since September 11. One garden at the skunk party has been the
emergence of new bipartisan momentum to expand free trade,
specifically something called 'Trade Promotion Authority.'" US Trade
Representative Robert Zoellick was everywhere preaching his
"Countering Terror With Trade" mantra, a campaign so aggressive it
left even Republicans scratching their heads. "I am not sure a trade
bill has anything to do with terrorism," said Ohio Republican
Congressman Bob Ney.

But Zoellick wasn't listening to
Republicans who warned that an aggressive push for fast track could
be the straw that breaks the back of the post-September 11
bipartisanship. Less than two weeks after the attacks, Zoellick
delivered a speech at the Institute for International Economics that
seemed to question the patriotism of fast-track foes. Members of
Congress "who know trade is the right thing to do are refusing to act
for rather narrow-interest reasons," the Bush aide declared, adding,
"Trade is about more than economic efficiency. It promotes the values
at the heart of this protracted struggle."

That was too
much for New York Congressman Charles Rangel, the ranking Democrat on
the House Ways and Means Committee. Rangel issued a scathing rebuke
to Zoellick's policy profiteering. "As a combat war veteran and as a
person whose city has been attacked and suffered devastating losses
as a result, I am offended by the strategy of the current United
States Trade Representative to use the tragedy in New York and at the
Pentagon to fuel political momentum behind a partisan fast-track
proposal," Rangel said, adding, "To have the USTR attack the
patriotism of Americans for their failure to support an unwritten,
undisclosed bill demands a public apology."

When
Zoellick's point man in the House, Bill Thomas, the California
Republican who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, claimed he had
consulted key Democrats about a move to push a bipartisan fast-track
compromise through the House, Rangel shot back that the Democrats in
question "have expressed to me in no uncertain terms that they do not
subscribe to this attempt to wrap the flag around any fast-track bill
in the wake of the September 11 attacks." Undaunted, Thomas said he'd
try to bring a bill to a floor vote by the second week of
October.

Long before September 11, the debate over fast
track was destined to be intense. Bush, aided by major corporations,
had promised to pull out all the stops. But labor, environment and
human rights groups thwarted them by reminding Congress that since
the enactment of NAFTA in 1994, more than 355,000 US jobs (even by
the government's conservative estimate) have been lost. Small farms
have failed at a significantly increased rate, and environmental and
worker safety protections have been undermined at home and abroad.
"If the Administration had the votes for fast track, before September
11 or after, we would have had a vote. They still don't have the
votes, but they're trying everything to come up with them," says
Patrick Woodall, research director for Public Citizen's Global Trade
Watch.

Zoellick and Thomas are hardly the only policy
profiteers. The threat of war and recession has inspired plenty of
moves to wrap unappealing agendas in the bunting of patriotism.
School-prayer and flag-protection amendments are being elbowed onto
the antiterrorist agenda, while Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed
hard to win approval of dusted-off proposals to curtail immigrants'
rights, expand electronic surveillance and allow use of intelligence
gathered by foreign governments in US courts [see Bruce Shapiro, "All
in the Name of Security," page 20]. Playing the patriotism card in
support of Ashcroft, GOP Senate leader Trent Lott warned the
Democrats that in the event of another attack, "people are going to
wonder where have you been in giving the additional tools that are
needed to, you know, find these terrorists and avoid plots that may
be in place."

Bush aides have proposed cutting corporate
income taxes, while House Republicans are flying the capital-gains
tax-cut flag. Although the attacks proved that there are far more
pressing security needs than developing a National Missile Defense
system, Star Wars backers are still attempting to get funding for
their boondoggle. And backers of the Administration's energy proposal
now want an "expedited energy bill" designed to clear the way for
drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

If
Washington is witnessing shameless policy profiteering, state
legislatures have seen surreal grabs for political advantage. A
Republican state representative in Wisconsin announced that after so
many deaths, it was time to renew America's commitment to life--by
passing his antiabortion bill. In states that bar capital punishment,
proposals were made to allow executions as antiterrorist
measures--failing to recognize the absurdity of threatening suicide
attackers with death.

Every war has its profiteers. But it
looks like this one is going to require an army of La Follettes to
prevent this war's policy profiteers from warping the discourse--not
to mention plundering the Treasury--in the name of a "patriotism"
defined solely by self-interest.


When Congress voted to authorize the Bush Administration to use military force in response to the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Representative Barbara Lee stood alone in opposition to what she saw as a "rush to judgment." Lee, the California Democrat who holds the Bay Area seat once occupied by antiwar activist Ron Dellums, spoke with John Nichols,
The Nation's Washington correspondent, this week.

THE NATION: How did you reach the decision to oppose authorizing the use of force?

LEE: I was at the National Cathedral in Washington. I went to the memorial service on the Friday after the attacks and I prayed. I said to myself, "You've got to figure this one out." I was dealing with all the grief and sorrow and the loss of life, and it was very personal because a member of my staff had lost a cousin in the Pennsylvania crash. I was thinking about my responsibility as a member of Congress to try to insure that this never happens again. I listened to the remarks of the clergy. Many of them made profound statements. But I was struck by what one of them said: "As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore." That was such a wise statement, and it reflected not only what I was feeling but also my understanding of the threats we continue to face. When I left the cathedral, I was fairly resolved.

THE NATION: Were you also concerned about the constitutional implications of the vote?

LEE: Absolutely. Given the three branches of government, and given that each has a role in the making of monumental decisions such as this, I thought the Congress had a responsibility in this instance especially to step back and say,"Let's not rush to judgment. Let us insist that our democracy works by insuring that the checks and balances work and that the Congress is a part of the decision-making process in terms of when we go to war and with whom.... I think we disenfranchised the American people when we took their representatives out of the decision-making on whether to go to war with a specific nation.

THE NATION: Were you surprised that no other members of Congress voted with you?

LEE: It never dawned on me that I would cast the only vote against this resolution. Many members asked me to change my position. They were friends, and they said, "You do not want to be out there alone." I said, "Oh, no, don't worry. There will be others." When there weren't, I said, "Oh my God." I could not believe it. It was an awesome feeling. And a lonely feeling.

THE NATION: You mentioned that other members said, "You don't want to be out there alone." Do you think other members shared your concerns but were unwilling to cast a risky vote with emotions running so high?

LEE: If you read the floor statements. you'll see that there are many members of Congress who share my concerns. I think that, when I cast that vote, I was speaking for other people in Congress and outside Congress who want a more deliberative approach.

THE NATION: At the same time, you have received precisely the sort of criticism that most politicians fear.

LEE: I've been called a traitor, a coward, a communist, all the awful stuff. It's been quite difficult for me. But I still believe that I cast the right vote. My district, I think, understands this vote.... I've gotten probably 20,000 e-mails. At first, there were a lot of very harsh messages. But now we are hearing more from people who are saying, "Yes, let's use some restraint. Yes, let's break the cycle of violence if we can." I think the further we get away from that tragic day, the more we will hear those voices of reason.

The lesson of fifteen years is that real change requires a people's movement.

If they connect well with voters in 2002, they'll have an edge in a weak economy.

"What do we do now?" That famous last line of the 1972 film The Candidate, in which Robert Redford finds himself--to his surprise--elected to the Senate, should be on the minds of Senate Democrats, now that Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont has abandoned the GOP for independent-hood and an alliance with the Dems. It took a moderate--a dying breed in the Republican Party--to thrust Tom Daschle & Co. into control of half of Congress. That should mean the end of Bush's relatively--and unexpectedly--easy ride in Washington. With such a change, the Democrats' leaders will no longer be able to wring their hands and plead minority status when they lose legislative battles, such as the fight over the relieve-the-rich tax cut. The party will gain the (theoretical) ability to strike down the Bush agenda and deny him his more extreme appointees--to speak for the majority of voters who said no to Bush. All this is possible, that is, if the Democrats can mount a unified opposition. A big if, since several Senate Dems have been happy to work with Bush on taxes and other measures. The Jeffords switch doesn't change that dynamic. After all, a dozen Senate Dems ended up voting for the Reaganesque tax cut.

There is much the party can do with the Senate in its hands. Ever since the Republicans took over Congress after the 1994 election, the Democrats have tried to beat up the party of Gingrich on kitchen-table issues, including healthcare, prescription drugs, education and wages. With an edge in the Senate, Democrats have the chance to pass uncompromising legislation on several fronts: a strong patient bill of rights, expansions in health insurance to cover those not covered, a minimum-wage boost free of tax breaks for corporations. These bills would likely be shot down by the Republicans in the House and President Bush. But this could show that the Democrats do stand for something and create a record of difference useful for the party in the elections of 2002 and 2004. The last time the Democrats were in charge of Congress, they passed a modest Family and Medical Leave Act, Bush the Elder vetoed it, and a very effective campaign issue was handed to candidate Bill Clinton.

The Democrats have picked up the power of subpoena. There are many topics worthy of its use. Oil company price-gouging. Electric utilities price-gouging. Pharmaceutical companies price-gouging. Perhaps an inquiry into the recent fundraiser at the Vice President's home. (Oh, sorry, the Republicans claim it was just a "thank you" to financial supporters, not a fundraiser.) The Democrats are free to host high-profile hearings to counter Bush's bully pulpit and to advance their own ideas. Imagine hearings on victims of arsenic poisoning. Or on the dangers of nuclear waste disposal. Or on the plight of older Americans who can't afford medicine. Or on renewable-energy alternatives to increased oil drilling.

The Jeffords move, perhaps partly caused by heavy-handed Bush/GOP tactics, including threats made against dairy price supports for Vermont farmers, shows that the Republicans have a hard time being anything other than a party of the right. Yet Senator Zell Miller--the conservative Democrat of Georgia and number-one target for GOP defector-hunters--could in a similar way inconvenience the Democrats, although he has twice said he wouldn't join the party with which he regularly votes. And a Jeffords jump is not the end but the beginning of the intrigue. GOPers will be trawling for other Democratic cross-dressers besides Miller (and making sure that at least one senior citizen, Strom Thurmond, has ready access to prescription drugs). Senator Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, ought to be sweating even more. He's being investigated on a number of matters--deservedly so, it appears--but now the Republicans have even more incentive to nail him.

That one Yankee could so upset the balance in Washington--and so discomfit the Bush advance--illuminates not only how divided are forces in the capital but how much opportunity exists for the Democrats, should they be able to act like a party of principles.

"What do we do now?" That famous last line of the 1972 film The Candidate, in which Robert Redford finds himself--to his surprise--elected to the Senate, should be on the minds of Senate De

As he goes, so goes the Senate.

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