SCOTT SIMON, host:
NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us in our studios.
Ron, thanks very much for being with us.
RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: Democrats were elected, got a majority certainly on the implication that they changed things. But you take a look at the war in Iraq, funding for the war, electronic eavesdropping, it's hard to make the case that much is changed. How do they campaign on that?
ELVING: On those issues, not much has changed. In fairness to the Democrats, they have been able to raise the minimum wage. They have been able to make progress on a number of domestic fronts. It's clearly a different Congress from what it was a year ago before the Democrats took over. But on the biggies - on Iraq, funding the war, on eavesdropping, domestic surveillance, issues of that kind - the Democrats are still to some degree spinning their wheels.
They can't get traction against the president for a couple of reasons. One, you still got an awful lot of Republicans in this Congress. In fact, in the Senate it's a virtual tie. And in the Senate you need to 60 votes to get most anything important done.
On the House side, Democrats have a little better margin, but again they don't have anything like what it takes to override a veto. And they must make certain concessions to their own most conservative members. And that's really the bottom line.
SIMON: That's really how they got a majority.
ELVING: Exactly. It was not a majority that was built in the cities or in other liberal areas of the country because those parts of the country already had Democrats in Congress.
It was built in semi-rural areas and in suburbs where Republicans more often get elected. But in 2006 many Democrats got elected, and that's what gave them this relatively small (unintelligible) modest margin of control. They're worried about keeping those seats and they're worried about how they get more Republican seats in 2006 to build towards a majority that would be really more powerful.
SIMON: When they came in to a majority, it was obviously considered a good sign for the next presidential elections in 2008. But now public opinion polls show the approval rating of Congress is even lower than the president. Now that can't be good going into an election year.
ELVING: Certainly not, and the fact that everyone keeps repeating how low it is, is also lowering the opinion of Congress in and of itself particularly when people say the Democratic Congress. And of course, it is a Congress with Democratic majorities, House and Senate, but it is not an altogether Democratic Congress and it isn't certainly not an altogether liberal Congress.
And, therefore, anytime a really important question comes along, like war and peace, you're going to have very close divisions between the different ideologies in Congress to some degree independent of party. There'll be some Republicans who come over on these issues, some who will vote against the war, and there will be a certain number of Democrats, a larger number of Democrats who stand with the president because the issues are never framed in terms of do you like George W. Bush. They are framed in terms of the troops - do you support the troops, do you want the money to continue to flow to our troops?
SIMON: Coming in to an election year, the Democrats vulnerable to some kind of challenge or at least the lack of enthusiasm in the liberal wing of the party, which in recent years has been considered the activist base.
ELVING: Yes, when you have to remember that most people on this country don't vote in congressional elections particularly not in the off years - the non-presidential years - and so you are relying on those people who care the most. And they tend to be the most partisan whether it's to the right or to the left.
So you do need to tend to your base, and they are the people who will give you money. They are the people who will turn out and vote in the rain. And the Democrats are desperately going to need those people 13 months from now if they're going to expand their base in Congress so that they really can do things.
Can they expand that base if they've disappointed it throughout the two years that they have been at least nominally in control of Congress? That's a huge unknown at this point. And there are some signs that a lot of these people may bail out and a lot may depend on who the Democratic nominee for president is, and how strong that nominee is on the war and on the other issues that liberals care most about.
SIMON: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving, thank you.
ELVING: Thank you, Scott.
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