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Week of February 14, 2007

February 14, 2007
Washington, DC
Vol. 42, No. 4a

Outlook

  1. The futility so far of congressional Republicans in coping with the Democratic majority is typified by the fuss they have made about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s (D-Calif.) desire for a bigger Air Force plane. It was arrogant on Pelosi’s part, but the White House was correct in disregarding it.
  2. Democrats have violated their promises to provide a more equitable attitude toward the opposition than the Republicans did, outdoing the GOP in refusing the right even to offer amendments on Iraq and appropriations. But they will get away with it.
  3. Supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) are truly worried about Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). He is showing signs of being a genuine phenomenon who could sweep through the primaries and take the Democratic nomination. The question for Clinton strategists: Should they attack Obama?
  4. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is making the inevitable slow shift to the right as a Republican presidential candidate, but his liberal position on social issues may be dwarfed as a problem by his personal life history. However, his opponents hesitate to open a personal assault on him, at least for now.

Congress

Democrats are demonstrating that they are capable of running the show in Congress. They have been slowed by the sluggishness of the Senate, but they have not been stopped. Republicans, meanwhile, see themselves slipping in their already limited influence thanks to strong-arm Democratic parliamentary tactics. They showed their unwillingness to go to the wall when they decided to back down this week rather than shut down the government.

The clearest example that the Democrats can remain united enough not to lose their strategic map came with Rep. Charlie Rangel‘s (D-N.Y.) capitulation in passing a bipartisan small-business tax cut through his Ways and Means Committee. The result will be that the House and Senate can both agree on and pass a minimum wage bill. Some Republicans in the House were miffed by the voice-vote, no amendment committee markup on the bill, which cuts some taxes and raises others to make up for it, resulting in a small net tax increase. Even more troubling was the laudatory, almost obeisant press release put out by ranking member Jim McCrery (R-La.) afterward.

Parliamentary Procedure: Democrats are also doing what every majority does in consolidating their power and shaping the debate. Republicans point out that on every significant or controversial bill that has arisen so far, Democrats have stacked the parliamentary process, barring or restricting amendments and keeping Republicans from having any input.

This seems despotic and it definitely violates the Democrats’ promises for collegiality, but it is good politics for them anyway. Voters neither remember nor know anything of the years their party spent complaining that the minority was being written out of the legislative process. Voters are neither interested nor knowledgeable in the area of parliamentary procedure, and so Democrats are safe to put themselves firmly in charge, particularly in the House but also in the Senate.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has now twice used the arcane technique of “filling the tree” with superfluous amendments, devised a quarter of a century ago by a Republican Majority Leader (Howard Baker). This prevents any changes being offered on the Senate floor and has contributed to degeneration of the Senate as a deliberative body. In his brief tenure as Majority Leader, Reid has filled the amendment tree twice—first on the Iraq resolution and now on the omnibus money bill. Never before had this been done on an appropriations bill.

Iraq Debate: After the Senate’s failure to act on a troop-surge resolution, the House took up the debate in earnest on Tuesday.

  1. Unlike in the Senate, Democratic leaders in the House can completely determine the course of the debate and force a vote precisely on what they want. Republicans expressed their extreme displeasure that they would not have a chance to propose an alternative resolution, despite an informal promise from Democratic leaders. The drama is not unlike that which occurred earlier in the Senate, except that Republicans in the House find themselves completely powerless to resist.
  2. The real problem with any non-binding Iraq-surge resolution is that it is a political stunt — a non-binding vote — that purports to determine military strategy and tactics rather than a military objective. A vote on partial or complete withdrawal, or a vote setting a timetable for withdrawal, which many on both sides could agree to, would have the virtue of determining policy instead of military tactics. To subject the tactical affairs of the military to the political process is probably in no one’s best interests.

    Congress, whose power it is to declare and fund war, is much better off mandating an objective than a strategy. Setting aside all the Republican rhetoric about “the troops,” this resolution puts Congress in an improper role and at best mildly interferes with the running of the war.

  3. Democrats are not being taken to task for this — mostly because the war and its poor progress are properly laid at the feet of President Bush. But Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq, was confirmed with the backing of Democrats, despite the fact that the Iraq troop surge is his preferred strategy for extricating the United States from Iraq. That they could confirm him, and then cut him off at the knees, reflects the political environment in Washington today. The legislators are happy to put on a show, but they refuse to take substantive actions for which they could someday be held accountable.
  4. As for the Senate’s obstruction of a vote, the debate will return soon after the Presidents’ Day recess. Republicans were ready to vote on a resolution, but only if they could also have a vote on their own resolution, which commits the Senate to maintaining troop funding. The idea here is to force passage of such an amendment, which would have more than 70 votes, and divide Democrats over it. Democrats would rather see the Republicans divided over the troop-surge resolution, which still will not have the 60 votes needed to end debate and eventually pass.
  5. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is already running print ads against two of the Republican incumbents they view as vulnerable — Gordon Smith (Ore.) and John Sununu (N.H.) — exploiting their role in “preventing” the Iraq vote because both voted against the adoption of Reid’s parliamentary setup. The DSCC ads feature a soldier, noting that while he must follow President Bush’s orders, Smith (or Sununu, depending on the version) was doing so voluntarily.

CR-Omnibus: The Senate Democratic leadership had arranged a vote on a bill that is not really a continuing resolution (which just allocates funds at the current level for a fixed period of time) and is not exactly an omnibus bill (which appropriates money in place of all or several of the eleven bills that go through the appropriations process). It was something of a hybrid between the two.

The bill was necessary because Republicans had left the process of government funding for fiscal 2007 to the Democrats as they took over the Congress. Democrats have bypassed this booby-trap by not engaging the process fully. Their aim is to return to the normal appropriations process for next year, but simply continue funding for now with a few changes, no amendments allowed.

Reid’s decision to “fill the tree” on the CR-Omnibus left Republicans with one alternative: block the money bill with a filibuster as tomorrow’s deadline for funding the government approached. But Republicans have never quite recovered from their political disaster in the 1995 shutdown of government and did not want a repetition. Thus, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), while deploring Reid’s tactics, voted for cloture on Tuesday — the white flag of surrender.

Republican sources say the leadership did not want to endanger Senators facing re-election in 2008 by risking a government shutdown. That is an admission of weakness by the Republican minority as the new Congress begins. With only 49 unadulterated Democrats in their seats, Reid showed he could stare down the GOP. One could say that under his leadership, is majority is effectively larger than
Sen. Gordon Smith, with a little help from his colleague Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), launched into a mini-filibuster on Monday that he continued on Tuesday morning in protest of the bill’s failure to extend county reimbursements from the federal government. The problem in many Oregon counties is that the government owns most of the land, and therefore there is no tax base — the federal government therefore has been reimbursing several such counties. The bill failed to extend this, but Smith was powerless to carry a filibuster — the cloture motion on the CROmnibus received 71 votes February 13, with Wyden the only member voting against. The Republican leadership voted in favor of cloture.

Meanwhile, members of the conservative caucus in the Senate generally voted “nay,” some of them upset that the bill did not contain language instructing agencies to ignore the earmarks that were left over from last year’s appropriations bills being “continued” until the end of fiscal 2007. The Bush Administration has finally taken its cue from an idea proposed last year by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), that many if not most earmarks are not legally binding on the agencies that received them. DeMint had outraged veteran Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) when he suggested that federal agencies are not always legally bound to honor the wishes of legislators who insert some earmarks into appropriations bills.

Card Check: After labor unions invested heavily in helping them take control of Congress, House Democrats are marking up a bill this week designed to help labor unions reinvigorate themselves. The so-called Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would mansate the “card-check” procedure for unionizing employees at a given workplace, making workers go on the record for or against a union, instead of giving them a secret-ballot election.

Private sector unions are suffering declines in membership so great that even robust public-sector union membership cannot make up the shortfall. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this year that union membership declined from 12.5 percent of the American workforce to 12 percent, reflecting a loss of more than 300,000 union members in a growing workforce.

Union supporters showed how powerful they were in signing up an overwhelming 232 House co-sponsors. A vote on the bill is likely to come in the last week of February.
Right-to-work activists and Republicans generally feeling stung by the political power of unions are opposed to this bill, and prefer to mandate secret-ballot elections because they put employers on more of an equal footing with union activists. Unions have definitely chosen the Democratic side of the fence, and so most Republicans are against the bill. But seven of them are co-sponsors, including Chris Shays (Conn.), Steve LaTourette (Ohio), John McHugh (N.Y.), Peter King (N.Y.), Vito Fossella (N.Y.), Chris Smith (N.J.) and Frank LoBiondo (N.J.).

Republicans have a rhetorical advantage, since they can say they are trying to preserve “free elections” for workers. That’s part of the reason Democrats want to pass this bill quickly.

President 2008

Two of the Republican presidential candidates embraced President Bush’s troop surge. That puts all three of the top GOP candidates in favor of the surge.

Rudy Giuliani: His embrace of the troop surge is characteristic of his tough-guy posture toward issues of national security. It keeps him from stepping on the sitting President’s toes, and it puts him in line with the other top GOP presidential candidates.

Giuliani is often dismissed because of his social liberalism. He leads in several polls for the GOP nomination, but many believe that his support will slacken when more Republican primary voters learn about his social liberalism.

But as Rudy courts conservatives, more than a few are willing to overlook his social liberalism and embrace his candidacy. The former New York City mayor tries to show that pro-lifers would probably see little difference between him and George W. Bush in terms of the kind of judges he would appoint, and he gives a soft sell to his support for gun control, arguing that New York was impossible to control without it. Throw in that Rudy is tough on terror and could be the most electable, and the conservative case for him is at least serious.

The questions surrounding Rudy are first, whether enough conservatives can be sold on a pro-choice, pro-gun control candidate, and second, whether his meanness and his tumultuous personal life are too much for any presidential candidate to overcome.

Rudy has been the slowest of the major candidates to build up his organization, but he has hired 60 or more staffers in recent weeks.

Mitt Romney: Former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney‘s call for more troops in Iraq (to accompany his presidential announcement) was a rather bold move that goes strongly against the grain of the current debate. As the last man to announce his position, he still had the option of coming out with a qualified opposition, but instead, he has produced a situation in which all three of the top Republican candidates are in support of the Bush policy.

The Iraq troop surge is considered unpopular — many have attributed the lagging numbers of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the surge’s other supporter in the presidential field, as evidence of this fact. The new development in which all three leading Republican candidates back the surge could change that, but it could also hurt the Republican field over all.

Romney spoke of the Iraq War and the consequences of failure should the U.S. withdraw too soon. This represents a total embrace of the surge not just a belief that the surge can help the U.S. get out of Iraq as soon as possible. It may not be the wisest way to approach the surge politically, but it reflects the fact that Romney still views McCain as the man to beat.

Romney’s announcement was not overshadowed by the decision of three state representatives to turn on him and instead support McCain, but the timing could not have been much better for McCain.

John Edwards: Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) handled himself very poorly when conservative bloggers exposed his two new webmaster hires as the authors of several vicious and some unrepeatable anti-Catholic posts on their blogs.

The material is offensive enough that it outraged some on the so-called “religious left” and not just the usual cadre of right-wing Christians. Yet it put Edwards in a rough spot: Should he alienate the liberal blog community by capitulating and firing the bloggers, or let a controversy rage on in which he was paying bloggers who had posted on the Internet, for all posterity, material clearly intended to offend Christians? He chose to keep the staffers, both of whom resigned this week.

Edwards is fortunate that so much of the Democratic base is secular. The political lesson for presidential candidates is to run a web search on the names of new employees, because a failure to check could be hazardous to one’s candidacy.

Sincerely,
Robert D. Novak
Written By

Mr. Novak was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report, a political newsletter he founded in 1967 with Rowland Evans. He passed away August 19, 2009. Read tributes to Robert Novak and his legendary work, as well as memories from Novak alumni and the Human Events family.

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