Three pending major issues in Congress -- Iraq war funding, an immigration overhaul and tougher ethics rules -- are demonstrating the limits to the power of the Democratic House and Senate leaders and exposing rifts within the ranks.
Democrats have controlled both chambers since January, and this is the roughest week for their leadership. Without the ability to muster veto-proof votes and with a Republican in the White House, there is only so much they can do.
House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner of Ohio e-mailed a memo with a gleeful tone showcasing Wednesday's headlines on how the Democrats had to drop their demands for a deadline to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq in the emergency supplemental spending bill. Democrats were forced to "relent," "split," "bow," "capitulate," "back down" and "blink.''
Democrats don't deserve all those harsh headlines. The reality is that they made progress. Bush is on a shorter leash. It is doubtful that even the weak benchmarks in the bill proposed by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) would have been inserted if the Democrats had not insisted on putting in a timetable for withdrawal in the Iraq spending bill Bush vetoed a few weeks ago.
Warner's amendment forces Bush to come to Congress in July and September to report on whether the Iraqi government and military have made progress in pulling their country together and ending the sectarian violence. The Democratic Congress is demanding and getting oversight on Iraq -- absent during when the GOP ran the House and Senate. In September, Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, as well as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq will have to brief lawmakers on where things stand.
Congress will also have other ways to keep pressure on Bush: a defense appropriations bill in July (though it will be very tough to vote against because it is the main military spending measure) and another Iraq supplemental funding bill in September.
Many precincts on the left are outraged at Democrats for buying into the compromise. Clearly it is painful. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California probably won't even vote for the deal she had a hand in crafting. "I'm not likely to vote for something that doesn't have a timetable of a goal of coming home," she said. The liberal and progressive Democratic community, especially the netroots, are going after all members -- GOP and Democrats -- who vote for the supplemental spending bill.
Moveon.org's political director, Eli Pariser, said in a statement that primary challengers may be recruited to run against Democrats who ran on ending the war but vote for the supplemental bill.
The role of outside agitators is to do just that. But within the chambers, members have to live with reality. When it comes to Iraq, Democrats operate in the Senate without a majority. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) votes with the GOP on Iraq and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is ill.
The Senate is working on immigration this week. It's not clear whether Congress will even be able to send Bush a bill to rewrite immigration laws and give a break -- yes it is a type of amnesty -- to the millions of immigrants who live in the United States illegally. Democrats on the left will have a hard time backing anything that does not make it easier to unite extended families and create a guest workers program, even if the numbers allowed in are reduced. Put presidential politics in the mix and the result may be a continued stalemate.
A chief architect of the bill, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), said in a statement, "The bill isn't exactly the way I would have written it, but it is a strong compromise."
Democrats pledged to clean up Washington. Pelosi and other House leaders are wrestling with their own members to produce a tough bill today with meaningful changes. It looks like a lobbyist bundling (fund-raising) disclosure measure may survive while provisions to force disclosure of phony grass-roots lobbying groups won't.
House Democrats have been reluctant to get on board -- oblivious to the fact that in the next election they could blow their thin majority on this issue alone.