By Mike Soraghan
Democrats are marching through their legislative agenda as they near the fall election season, scoring several key victories and forcing President Bush to abandon his veto threats.
The latest triumph came Wednesday when Bush dropped his opposition to a massive housing-rescue bill and the House subsequently passed the measure, 272-152. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can add that win to her party overriding Bush on a water resources bill, the farm bill and an effort to stave off sharp cuts to doctors under Medicare. They also forced the president to back down on GI education benefits and unemployment compensation -- both of them included against his wishes in the emergency war-spending bill.
The momentum is a sharp difference from last year, when Bush infuriated Democratic leaders and shaped the legislative agenda on spending, Iraq policy and more by rejecting Democratic legislation and refusing to negotiate. At this point in 2007, Democrats were being muscled into passing a surveillance bill to Bush's liking.
“We overrode him four times, I think he knows we can do it,” said Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.). “We're bringing forward good legislation and he's going against public opinion.”
Republican lawmakers watching the campaign calendar are running for cover, refusing to back Bush on his conservative stances and handing victories to Pelosi.
“There's no advantage in being identified as a White House lackey,” said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who's been delivering stinging advice to his conference. “They've picked bad issues to make a stand on.”
White House officials are downplaying the importance of Bush changing his mind on the housing bill, after threatening to reject it over $4 billion in block grants to local governments to buy foreclosed properties.
“When legislation finally comes to the president's desk, it often has a few things in there that he might not be able to support, or that he wouldn't have recommended,” said Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino, “but when there is bipartisan support for a bill, he will sign it.”
The housing legislation would throw a lifeline to troubled homeowners and reform the oversight of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The bill also includes an administration plan to shore up the two companies, which have seen their share prices plummet amid fears they would become insolvent.
Democrats would have their Republican colleagues completely on the run if it weren't for one thing -- gas prices. The surging cost of filling the tank has warmed the hearts of the general public for oil drilling in new areas, but Democrats aren't playing along.
Instead, they're playing defense on energy. They've all but shut down the appropriations process for fear of a drilling measure passing. They've tossed out substitutes to traditional drilling targets like the Outer Continental Shelf and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and focused on the hard-to-grasp issue of speculation.
“People go to the gas station every week. And they believe drilling will help,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). “You know their members are screaming.”
One of those members is Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), who is pushing Democratic leaders to be open to drilling, saying everything is going their way in November except energy.
“There's only one thing that can bring us down,” Abercrombie said in a recent interview, “this energy-independence question.”
The Democratic victories also come at a price that won't be paid for years when the costs are simply added to the debt. The GI bill is expected to cost a staggering $50 billion; unemployment insurance $12 billion; the original portion of the housing bill is “paid for,” but the Congressional Budget Office figures the rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could cost $25 billion if the companies tap the line of credit.
“In 18 months, this Democratic Congress has to go down as one of the most fiscally irresponsible in history, and they've had some real competition,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
But Democrats say they can justify the expenses. The GI bill, says Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), is “a cost of war.” The others were economic emergencies needed to stimulate the economy or keep it from sliding further, and offsetting with taxes would be counterproductive.
“Stimulating and depressing at the same time is not good policy,” Hoyer said. Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), the leader of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, stressed that the House passed the GI bill with the cost offset by taxes.
The Democrats' aggressive posture will likely continue next month, when they are expected to bring up the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which Bush vetoed last year, as well as a stimulus package currently estimated at $50 billion.
The SCHIP vote could present a difficult choice for nervous Republicans who want to support the program but originally backed Bush's veto.
“Any Republican who flips on SCHIP under the panic of an election looks very, very weak,” Davis said.