Meeks' Message From Capitol Hill
There's less than a month left of the first session of the 110th Congress. Expect the struggle to continue between those representatives and senators who are committed to doing something, and those who seem determined to do nothing.
It's been a tug-of-war all year on issue after issue between most House and Senate Democrats joined by a handful of House and Senate Republicans, and most Republicans in both houses. Lately, however, more and more Republicans have begun to add their voices and votes to bipartisan majority coalitions built around specific issues. This process reached a high point this fall when an overwhelming majority of Democrats and Republicans approved the defense appropriation bill.
But in most cases, these bipartisan majorities (as I've noted in previous columns) are not as large as the twothirds majority necessary to override a presidential veto or the three-fifths majority required to cut off debate in the Senate. It will be interesting to see whether this pattern holds over the next three weeks, let alone through to next November when voters will have their chance to hold Democratic and Republican incumbents accountable.
Since taking control of the House and Senate last January, Democrats have consistently fought to change course in Iraq. We haven't succeeded, but we haven't given up. And won't.
The situation is different on other issues. Most Democrats and a significant number of Republicans have been able to compromise on several of the appropriations bills that fund federal departments and agencies. The same thing happened with a new version of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Meanwhile, a significant number of Democrats and a majority of Republicans joined together to pass the Peru Free Trade Agreement. This combination may set the precedent for approval of pending trade bills.
Just before Thanksgiving, Congress for the first time overrode a Bush veto. This was the Water Resources appropriations bill and it happened by overwhelming margins in both the House and Senate.
Less encouraging but definitely not discouraging was the failure of the House by a mere two votes to override the President's veto of the Labor- Health-Education appropriations bill, the largest social spending bill in the federal budget.
This legislation would increase funding for college financial aid, Head Start, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer research, rural health programs, mine safety, the No Child Left Behind Act, medical research at the National Institutes of Health, Low Income Home Energy Assistance, employment and job training services, the Community Service Block Grant, and initiatives that specifically benefit Iraq war veterans in need of rehabilitation, housing, and employment.
The bill was $22 billion over the amount the president proposed. That's a small figure in a multi-trillion dollar budget. Bush, who is by far the most fiscally irresponsible president in American history, justified his veto by contending it was "too expensive." This is the same reason he gave for vetoing children's health insurance legislation, then turned around and demanded that Congress appropriate $192 billion more to fund the Iraq war, just for 2008!
The appropriations bill for the Education, Labor, Health and Human Services Departments, SCHIP, the tax bill the House recently passed to spare an estimated 20 million middle class Americans from the alternative minimum tax, and every other spending bill advanced by Democrats, all are paid for under the "pay-go" rule of accounting for new spending either with cuts elsewhere in the budget or by increasing revenue.
The President's demand for additional war funding isn't. The fact is, the entire half-trillion dollar cost of the Iraq war has been financed through off-budget vehicles called supplemental appropriations. With this request, Iraq war supplementals will have added upwards of $600 billion to the national debt.
Yet, Bush refuses to accept a $22 billion increase in badly needed social spending. He has even refused to accept a Democratic proposal to meet him halfway, with an $11 billion increase.
Despite his veto threats, Congress will try to enact appropriations bills for education, labor, health, and other departments, before year's end. Democrats also plan to bring up a major energy bill that raises fuel efficiency standards, a farm bill, the Orderly and Responsible Iraq Redeployment Appropriations Act, which provides funding for our troops in Iraq while requiring the President to begin redeployment, a new version of SCHIP, legislation that protects civil liberties while addressing national security concerns, and a bill that tackles the home mortgage foreclosure crisis.
President Bush is certain to veto many, if not all of these measures. Far less certain is whether as many House and Senate Republican incumbents as in the past will continue to side with him, or side with the needs of their constituents on the eve of an election year. That choice may be the difference between failing to override a veto by a few votes and overriding a veto by a few votes. If it's the latter, Congress will indeed succeed in doing some badly needed heavy lifting for the holidays.