Power shift leaves unanswered questions

Donald Lambro

11/13/2006 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

The power shift in Congress brings one-party rule to an end in Washington, at least for the next two years, but it would be a bit premature to read much else into last week's elections.

The Democrats will control the House by about a 30-something-seat margin and the Senate by 51 to 49, and that puts them in charge of the legislative agenda, if they can produce one.

But that is not necessarily the same thing as being able to enact their proposals into law. President Bush will still have his veto and will likely exercise it before his term is up in January 2009. It will also be difficult to cobble together a majority in a more narrowly divided Senate in which one member can require 60 votes to end debate and proceed to a vote.

This is why the stock market was cheering the election results, believing that the numbers spell gridlock, which will make it impossible to pass bills that would further regulate the financial industry or raise corporate taxes. "Gridlock is good," was the phrase most heard on Wall Street last week.

This is not to say that here and there, now and then, there won't be times when Democrats, Republicans and the White House may be able to come together on common ground. Perhaps over immigration reform.

Bush's proposal to create a well-regulated guest-worker system at the Mexican-United States border was killed in the Republican House, which refused to budge on its enforcement-only, fence-building bill that Bush eventually signed. Now that the Democrats are in charge, it's much more likely that a modified bill will make it to the president's desk.

Conservative immigration opponents who fiercely opposed his guest-worker plan will no doubt fight it tooth and nail, but the combined support of most House Democrats and enough Republicans will put it over the top.

At his post-election news conference last week, Bush mentioned the possibility of a compromise to reauthorize his 2001 "No Child Left Behind" education testing bill. However, that could run into stiff opposition in the Senate from spending critics who would fight increases in its very costly funding.

The battle of the budget is likely to become much more incendiary, too. Senate Republicans, stung by sharp criticism from their political base in the elections that they were "spending like drunken sailors," will be much more hawkish on appropriations and budget reform.

Getting a budget bill passed in a 51-vote Democratic Senate is going to be problematic at best. Democrats have big plans to boost a broad range of social-welfare programs to satisfy their political base, and that will give Republicans plenty of targets to demonstrate a renewed commitment to spending restraint. Expect a lot of fireworks in that arena.

How the new Democratic Congress will deal with the Iraq war -- one of the paramount issues in the elections -- will also be debated hotly.

During the campaign, Democratic leaders called for reducing the number of troops in Iraq by the end of this year. But any attempt by Democrats to legislate reductions would surely invite a presidential veto that would be difficult if not impossible to override at this stage in the ongoing debate over the war.

Still, there will be numerous opportunities for antiwar amendments on defense-spending bills in the Senate -- including an additional $1 billion sought by departing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to accelerate the training of more Iraqi troops. This, at the very least, will fuel further debate on the war and perhaps undercut the administration's ability to maintain its present force levels there until the Iraqi military can take over.

Meantime, it should be noted that the Democrats will be taking over Congress at a time when, absent the war debate, the country is doing pretty well overall. After a year of dismal polls showing Americans were sour on the economy, election-day exit polling showed that nearly half of the voters (49 percent) say the economy is either excellent or good.

As a result, the budget deficit is in steep decline, thanks to a strong increase in federal tax receipts, homeownership is pushing near the 70 percent mark, and most Americans feel good about their finances.

One of the most important questions in the exit poll found that 82 percent said they were either "getting ahead financially" or had enough money to "maintain their standard of living."

Now, after 12 years in the minority, the Democrats are getting ready to take over the legislative reins of power once more. What they do with that power and whether they make things better or worse for Americans on a broad range of issues will be judged in the next election cycle which, by my count, begins seven weeks from now.