WASHINGTON – Democrats running Congress for the first time in more than a decade faltered at key points this year as they grudgingly passed important bills opposed by many, or even most, of their House members. When Republicans were in charge, they generally avoided a similar fate.
Republican solidarity also forced House Democrats to abandon a campaign promise to avoid new deficit spending by paying for new programs with tax increases or budget cuts.
In the Senate, Republicans repeatedly used their filibuster powers to block or weaken Democratic proposals. Backed by President Bush's veto threats, the minority party managed to sharply limit the Democrats' influence on a range of issues throughout the year.
The Democrats' dilemma was clear in two House votes this past week just before Congress went on vacation.
The House voted 352-64 on Wednesday to delay an expansion of the alternative minimum tax. All 64 "no" votes came from Democrats who wanted the $50 billion cut in anticipated revenues to be offset, either with spending cuts or tax increases on wealthy groups. They were dismayed that the party had abandoned its no-deficit-spending pledge.
The House then voted 272-142 to set aside $70 billion for the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly twice as many Democrats voted against the spending as voted for it, because the measure imposed no restrictions on Bush's war policies.
In all, 174 of the House's 232 Democrats voted against one or both of the high-profile measures, an obvious setback for a party that rose to power last year on voters' discontent with Bush and the Iraq war.
The Iraq spending bill came to a vote only because Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., refused to embrace the hardline partisan philosophy of her predecessor. Former Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., allowed major legislation to reach the full House only if it was backed by a "majority of the majority" — meaning, in his case, most Republicans.
Hastert invoked his rule most prominently in November 2004 to quash an intelligence bill that he, Bush and most Democrats supported, but which most House Republicans opposed.
The "Hastert rule" had marginalized and infuriated Democrats. Pelosi dropped it when she became speaker in January.
Her decision, plus Republican lawmakers' loyalty toward Bush and his Iraq policies, obligated Pelosi to swallow bitter bills this year, most notably approving money for the war without conditions. Unable to override Bush's veto of efforts to force troop withdrawals, House Democrats in May and December reluctantly allowed passage of Republican-backed measures that lacked support from the "majority of the majority."
"That's a reality of life that we have to deal with," Pelosi told reporters. The public knows where congressional Democrats stand on the war, she said, even if they could not enforce their will.
"This is the legislative process," she said.
Pelosi yielded to similar political realities last month on a less-noticed bill, a free trade deal with Peru. Slightly more Democrats voted against it than for it when the House approved the agreement, 285-132.
Democrats' inability to wind down the Iraq war has mystified and angered their anti-war supporters. But lawmakers and analysts say a Hastert-like stand by Pelosi might have led to a government shutdown or similar standoff, with unpredictable political results.
Even Hastert had to bend his rule at times, although allies said he never completely broke it. He allowed a vote on federal money for stem cell research, which most House Republicans opposed, when it was clear that Bush's veto would keep the bill from becoming law.
In 2002, Hastert allowed passage of a major campaign finance bill that most Republicans opposed, but only because a petition drive was about to force it to a vote.
Democratic majorities in previous Congresses made similar concessions. The North American Free Trade Agreement passed in 1993 despite opposition from most House and Senate Democrats, who then held power. That trade deal was backed by President Clinton, a Democrat.
Nothing has helped the minority party influence legislation this year more than Senate Republicans' liberal use of the filibuster. The obstructionist tactic can be overcome only with 60 votes in the 100-member chamber, where Democrats hold 51 seats.
The current Senate is on pace to shatter the record for filibusters, making the once-rare maneuver virtually an everyday threat.
GOP senators used vote-delaying filibusters this year to thwart House and Senate majorities on efforts to offset the $50 billion cut in projected revenue from the alternative minimum tax; allow the government to negotiate Medicare drug prices; impose new taxes on oil companies; require more use of renewable fuels in generating electricity; grant congressional representation to the District of Columbia; and require more rest time from troops deployed to Iraq.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., says little can be done until and unless more Democrats replace Republicans in the Senate.
"We need to do more" on numerous fronts, he said in his party's weekly radio address Saturday, "but time after time, when Democrats have fought for change, President Bush and Republicans in Congress have stood in the way."