Congress Ends Year with Disappointing Marks

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Despite some legislative successes, hopes for bipartisanship expressed by the Democratic leaders and President Bush were not realized in the first session of the 110th Congress. Andrea Seabrook speaks with John Bresnahan, Capitol Hill bureau chief of the Politico newspaper and Ross Baker, political science professor at Rutgers University.


You could almost smell the jet fumes in Washington this week as hundreds of lawmakers wrapped up congressional business and flew home to their districts. After a couple of late-night sessions, Congress managed to fund the federal government for the year, including an injection of cash for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The gavel that ended that session this week also closed the first year of the new Democratic majority in Congress, under Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

It was supposed to be a year of bipartisan cooperation, at least if you believed Pelosi and President Bush when they met at the Democrat's retreat back in early February.

Representative NANCY PELOSI: Let's make no mistake. The choice is bipartisanship or stalemate. We have the majority in the Congress, the president has the signature. And we have to work together to pass legislation that has sustainable remedies to the challenges that face the American people. And - so…

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And I agree, madam speaker, because there's a chance to show people that we can get beyond the politics of Washington, D.C. That we're able to treat each other with civility and at the same time accomplish big goals.

SEABROOK: So how did they do? In terms of substance, Congress did get a fair amount done. In the first weeks in the majority, the Democrats passed bills to beef up the student loan program, instate the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and increase the minimum wage. But on many, many issues, Congress was engaged in rancorous, sometimes furious political battles: the war, wiretapping laws, the definition of torture.

Two issues in particular showed the limits of bipartisanship in this Congress - the State Children's Health Insurance Program or SCHIP and immigration reforms. Both of these, to some extent, cut across party lines.

John Bresnahan is the Capitol bureau chief for the Politico newspaper and it covers politics for Washington insiders. And he says the immigration debate really showed how deep partisan passions run.

Mr. JOHN BRESNAHAN (Capitol Bureau Chief, Politico): You know, you had President Bush on the side of the Democrats on this one…


Mr. BRESNAHAN: …one of the rare issues where Bush and the Democratic leadership are aligned. You had McCain with Bush. But (unintelligible), minority leader, opposed the president on this issue. And then you had talk radio and the blogs just pounded Republicans.

SEABROOK: Sort of…

Mr. BRESNAHAN: And they - yeah. So they just kill them. And nearly by the end of the debate, there was no way anybody could wind up on where were Bush was and hoped you had any support from the base in 2008. You see where Republican presidential candidates are?

SEABROOK: In the end, immigration went exactly no where. An expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program made more progress this year, says Bresnahan, because Democrats and Republicans in Congress mostly agree. But it still ended up in the same place - nowhere - because President Bush vetoed it twice.

So what does all this mean for that early, lofty goal?

Mr. BRESNAHAN: The idea of bipartisanship right now is dead. There is none. I've covered Congress for 13 years, I've never seen relations so bad between the parties.

SEABROOK: For a little more historical perspective, we turn to political science professor Ross Baker. He's at Rutgers University. How are you, Professor Baker?

Professor ROSS BAKER (Political Science, Rutgers University): Fine, Andrea. How are you?

SEABROOK: Good. Thanks. We just heard from John Bresnahan of the Politico. He's never seen more acrimony than this year. Ross Baker, you've watched a lot longer than that, what do you think?

Prof. BAKER: Well, it's bad but it's been worse. But you had to go back a long way to it, you know, the duels and various floor scuffles in the 19th century, or the terrible atmosphere that was in Congress in the 1950s, during the McCarthy period. But this doesn't rank with the worse, but it certainly wasn't good.

SEABROOK: Mm-hmm. Washington had high hopes for bipartisanship for this year. What happened?

Prof. BAKER: Well, I think perhaps the Democrats were overly optimistic. I mean, they certainly came out of the 2006 election quite properly, kind of celebratory mood. And I think the feeling was that now, they could set the agenda, they could drive policy and on, and I think there was a tendency to believe that the president had been fatally wounded, and that somehow, the Republicans, basically hoping to distance themselves from the president in terms of their own political survival, would be more cooperative or at least docile. As it turned out, not to be the case at all. The president seemed in some ways, to be symbol around which Republicans rallied.

But I think you really have the kind of look at the situation in much broader terms. In that - the fact that Congress exist in the context of political constituencies out there among the voters. And a great deal of what happens in Washington is really being driven by the base groups in both parties - very liberal Democrats, very conservative Republicans. Members of Congress hear from these people.

SEABROOK: Ross Baker, this is not the first time that there has been a divided government. How does this compare - I mean, President Clinton had a Republican Congress.

Prof. BAKER: Well, is very interesting because President Clinton offered Republicans in Congress, which were the majority party after the 1994 election, certain proposals that the Republicans found very congenial. Primary one was welfare reform, which our Republicans could sign on to it, they've been arguing for the longtime. So basically what happened was that President Clinton preempted some of the Republicans' agenda, put his own label on it, and basically got credit for it. That's very different situation with President Bush. And really the entire dialogue between the president and Democrats and Congress was framed by the Iraq War, and this is a situation which the Democrats were under tremendous amount of pressure to do something quickly to extricate the troops from Iraq.

The president, on the other hand, just didn't want to give ground. And I think that the president, depending on your perspective, was either intransigent or stalwart in trying to fend this off. So I think that there was a basic difference of opinion that was so fundamental, a kind of polarization between the Democrats and Congress and the president that cooperation on anything really important was unlikely.

SEABROOK: Are there other examples that you can think of that might be illuminating other than the Clinton presidency?

Prof. BAKER: Sure. Sure. You know, I think in some ways, the model of divided government was when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader in the Senate.

President Eisenhower is very different person than President Bush. He was much more willing to accommodate the needs of members of Congress, and I think basically, had much greater respect for the institution of Congress. President Bush's father famously, of course, reached out to Congress in 1989 when he first came in, tried to make friends with some of the Democrats in the House of Representatives. And although the relationship was typically one of tension, as it should be under a system of checks and balances, nonetheless, I think that there was mutual respect.

I think what makes this situation different is, I think, the president considers Congress something of a constitutional annoyance. And I think if you approach an institution that way, I think its leaders are going to be predictably unfriendly.

SEABROOK: Professor Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University.

Thanks very much, sir.

Prof. BAKER: Thank you, Andrea.

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