The return of Democratic clout
Compromises on key bills in the Senate force GOP to face hard issues in an election year.
In the gray-suited halls of the US Senate, few days have produced more high drama than the one this Wednesday - which yielded no fewer than five major pieces of legislation, 11th-hour wheeling and dealing, and sober messages to some powerful senators that it is no longer politics as usual in terms of party solidarity.
Wrapping up work for the year, the Senate passed two key defense bills - dropping a plan in one of them to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling - and a six-month extension of the USA Patriot Act. Senators also approved a $601.6 billion social spending bill, and identified nearly $40 billion in spending cuts.
But before the final curtain, Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans managed to ensure that some especially divisive issues, ranging from privacy rights to the fairness of the US tax code, come up early in 2006 - an election year. For Democrats, it's the high-water mark for minority clout since Republicans took control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Republicans worked very hard and gambled on being able to basically intimidate the Democrats on the Patriot Act and the ANWR provision in the Defense appropriations bill, and it didn't work," says Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The first decision point comes as the House takes up the Senate's changes to the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. In the first of several successful procedural challenges, Democrats forced the Senate to set aside three provisions in a $39.7 budget savings package on the grounds that they violated Senate rules.
That bill, including $6.4 billion in cuts in the growth of Medicare and $4.7 billion in Medicaid, now requires vulnerable Republican moderates to take another tough vote - and gives a small army of senior and health groups more time to lobby against it.
In a letter after the Senate vote, House Speaker Dennis Hastert asked Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to "put politics aside" and agree to accept the changes by unanimous consent on Thursday. But with all House Democrats voting against the bill, she is insisting on a recorded vote "in the light of day."
"As it stands now, it hurts the neediest in our country, while providing huge giveaways to managed care and drug companies and the oil industries," Representative Pelosi said in a statement.
This delay forces Republican leaders to take up spending cuts closer to when they'd planned to vote on tax cuts of as much as $70 billion, mainly benefiting higher-income Americans.
"The juxtaposition of the spending cuts and tax cuts can prove really quite damaging to the Republican Party. The more they are held up together, the more difficult it becomes to make the sale for the Republicans," says Mr. Mann.
The White House and Senate GOP leaders also had to back down over renewal of the USA Patriot Act, which had been set to expire at the end of the month. Just hours before the final vote, President Bush and Senate majority leader Bill Frist said they would not go along with a short-term extension of the law.
But they did in the end, and the Senate move puts renewal of the Patriot Act into the new year, along with expected congressional investigations of White House approval of domestic surveillance without a warrant. Democrats say they intend to use the issue to open a broad discussion of government overreach and individual rights.
"We will initiate at the beginning of next year one of the most serious debates about civil rights and individual liberties in our history," says Sen. Richard Durbin, the deputy Democratic leader.
Another issue sure to resurface in the new year is the perennial proposal to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). In a high-stakes procedural gamble, GOP leaders had shifted this provision from the budget reconciliation bill to the must-pass Defense appropriations bill - and linked ANWR revenues to the funding of hurricane relief, relief from soaring heating bills, border security, and support for first responders.
Arguing that a vote against ANWR was a vote against the US forces in the field, Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska tried to muster the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. In the end, the bid failed, as two Republicans, Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Mike DeWine of Ohio, voted with Democrats to block a vote on the $453.5 Defense appropriations bill, until the ANWR provision was removed.