Democrats Hard at Work?

Congress returned to Washington this week with plenty of issues to tackle. Americans are waiting for us to act on the housing crisis. They’re waiting for us to give intelligence officials the tools they need in the hunt for terrorists. They want us to confirm judges to long-vacant seats. And they are eager to hear next week’s report from General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on political and military progress in Iraq. The question is whether Democrats are willing to cooperate to get something done or have retreated into a political trench until the November elections.

We came together earlier this year on an economic growth package, but the spirit of cooperation didn’t last long. As soon as we turned to the housing slump, Democrats shut Republicans out of the debate with a proposal that would have substantially raised monthly mortgage payments on everyone who buys a new home or refinances. It didn’t fly. If Democrats want to help homeowners, they need to work with Republicans on proposals that will draw substantial bipartisan support.

Republicans have proposed new tax benefits for struggling businesses, new Truth-in-Lending requirements, expanded protections against foreclosure for returning veterans, and FHA reform to help struggling homeowners stay in their homes. The partisan housing bill Democrats put forward failed. Why not give our bipartisan alternative, which will help homeowners without raising their mortgages, a chance to succeed?

Turning to national security, it’s been nearly a year since the Director of National Intelligence asked Congress to modernize our nation’s electronic surveillance laws. The House had a chance to make the necessary changes before the recess. But it chose an irresponsible path instead, passing an amendment to the bipartisan Senate bill that included none of the things the Director of National Intelligence had called for.

Ignoring the carefully-crafted Senate bill, the House decided it was more important to let people sue phone companies that stepped up when the country needed them to. The clock is ticking on the legal authorities contained in the current temporary fix, and a burden has been placed on the House Leadership to show that it can be trusted in matters of national security.

General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will be here next week, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. Under the leadership of these two men, our prospects for protecting America’s national security interests in the Persian Gulf have improved. Our men and women in uniform have protected the Iraqi people, scattered Al Qaeda, deterred militias, and helped create an environment that has led to progress not only at the tactical level, but in governing and reconciliation.

Six months ago, General Petraeus proposed a plan for bringing counterinsurgency forces back home and transitioning their mission from combat to partnership and oversight. A reduction in forces is underway, and the Iraqi people are now preparing for provincial elections, hopefully in October. Last week’s decision by the Maliki government to go on offense against Shiite militias in Basra and Baghdad showed us that we’ve come a long way from the days when Iraq Security forces wouldn’t even show up for a fight. Now they’re taking the lead in major combat operations, with recent offensives against the Iranian-trained Special Groups, Al Qaeda in Iraq and the militias.

Next week we’ll learn more about the pace of transitioning the mission. But with U.S. forces still in harm’s way, the Senate needs to quickly approve the supplemental spending bill without any unrelated non-defense spending. It would be pointless to repeat the partisan battles over the supplemental that consumed so much of our time and energy last year. Senate Democrats should set aside policy prescriptions and withdrawal timelines based on political calculations in Washington, and deliver the funds our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan need, without delay.

As we seek to help the Iraqi people stand up a stable government, we should not neglect our own by allowing vacancies on federal courts to go unfilled. Three months into the New Year, the Senate has not confirmed a single judicial nominee of any kind, and it’s held only one hearing on a circuit nominee since September of last year. The process, it appears, has ground to a halt. This is unacceptable, it’s unfair, and the excuses we’ve heard for it aren’t convincing.

Some nominees have waited hundreds of days for a simple hearing, including those who satisfy the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s specific criteria for quick action. These vacancies need to be filled, especially in places that have been declared judicial emergencies, such as on the Fourth Circuit, where one out of every three seats is currently vacant. Nominees for seats on the Fourth Circuit — which covers North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and South Carolina — are ready, well qualified, and they have been waiting and waiting and waiting. It’s time our friends on the other side stop blaming others for their own failures to act on judicial nominations. If they don’t, Republicans will be forced to consider other options.

The Senate faces many challenges domestically and internationally. Conventional wisdom says we won’t address them because it’s an election year. Yet we saw signs for a more responsible and productive path in a raft of bipartisan accomplishments at the end of last year and in a bipartisan economic growth bill this year. Public patience with partisan political games is wearing thin. It’s time to seize the current opportunities to deliver some accomplishments to the American people.