Pluses, Minuses for Democratic Congress

What has Congress accomplished in the five months since Democrats took control of the Senate and House? On the war in Iraq, less than many voters hoped. On other issues, some progress can be cited. And partisanship remains prevalent.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News on this holiday. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

It's been five months now since Democrats took control of both the House and the Senate. It's the first time they've been the majority in both houses of Congress for a dozen years. And right now, they're on a holiday break back in their districts for Memorial Day for this week, which means that many of them will be reaching out to talk to people like you.

We thought this would be a good time to take stock of how the Democrats are doing in their new leadership role, and so we've brought NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams on the line for some analysis. Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And…

WILLIAMS: People like you. People like you and me.

INSKEEP: People like me, people like me as well. No, not me, because I live in the District of Columbia and I'm not represented.

WILLIAMS: Oh no.

INSKEEP: Not that I'm unhappy about that, but people all across America. Anyway, let's talk about what the Democrats, and the Republicans as well, have been doing. And I have to ask about the Iraq war-funding bill, which has now been passed, there's going to be funding for the war, there's not going to be a timeline. And isn't this a defeat for Democrats who made this their top issue for months?

WILLIAMS: Well, yeah. The president got the war funding without the deadlines, which is what he wanted. He won on that. But look, from the Democrats' point of view, they've got a July mark-up now scheduled on what will be appropriations for spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that, you know, after the funding runs out September 30, so then you're going to also have a September vote on in appropriations.

So that whole conversation now is in process. And from the view of someone like Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, she said last week, we're going to end this war; Rahm Emanuel and other Democratic leaders said, this is the beginning of the end. And what you're seeing is that the Democrats are in sort of a favorable political position because the war, according to a New York Times/CBS poll reported on last week, is at a low in terms of support from the American people.

So the president is talking about maybe looking now at the Iraq Study Group, predicting more violence this coming summer, and over the weekend there was a report that White House officials are even considering a 50 percent cut in troop strength sometime in '08. So that's the direction. I think Democrats take some comfort in the idea they're pushing the president on the war as never before.

INSKEEP: I guess the Democrats can say they tried to stop the war, and if anything bad happens there, it's still on the president, it's his war.

WILLIAMS: Right.

INSKEEP: Well, now what are some things, though, that democrats have managed to accomplish given that they have not been able to stop the war?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think one of the big ones in terms of major accomplishments, Steve, would be the minimum wage bill that was approved last week. It'll raise the minimum wage $2.10 over three years, so it'll be $7.25 an-hour. That's the first time the minimum wage has been raised in almost 10 years, so that's quite an accomplishment for the Democrats. They also put in place some tax breaks that the White House - Republicans had insisted on for small business to help them pay for that increase.

And this is one of their promises that the Democrats had made when they took over Congress, that they'd raise the minimum wage. They also, last week, passed an ethics reform bill that requires lobbyist to disclose when their bundling donations, putting together lots of checks for them. And they're working on again implementing some of the 9/11 Commission reports, especially screening cargo coming in via airlines and ships. But the White House and the Senate aren't exactly on the same page, but that's an ongoing struggle.

INSKEEP: But since we're talking about people not exactly on the same page, how's everything working out with that bipartisanship that everybody was talking about at the beginning of this Congress?

WILLIAMS: Well, they haven't exactly been bipartisan. You remember that they wanted to - the Democrats wanted to push through six items very quickly in the first 100 hours, and they did so without allowing the Republicans to help shape the bill or offer amendments. So, you know, people like John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, says that the Democrats talked a good game about bipartisanship but haven't delivered.

And what you're hearing from the Democrats is, well, now as we go forward, we're going to do a better job. They haven't been much different than the era of Denny Hastert, who insisted on the majority of Republicans to pass any bill. And of course the Democrats have a small margin of difference in terms of majority in both the House and Senate, so they have been pretty much very partisan, not bipartisan, Steve.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, how are people ranking the Democrats, rating the Democrats after these five months?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think the key here is that there's far more oversight. If look at the Justice Department issue over the firing of the prosecutors, if you look at what happened with the Walter Reed scandal, even the Iraq war. The Democrats say they've had 75 hearings on Iraq. That's a big difference from when you have Republicans controlling the Hill and the White House. More oversight by the Democrats - on that grade you'd have to give them a plus.

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: Analysis on this Monday morning from NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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