Even though public opinion is overwhelmingly on their side, Democrats are winding up the year with little accomplished on the military and foreign policy issues that helped propel them to power in the last election.
They have been unable to bring troops home from Iraq or force President Bush to accept a nonbinding timetable on the war. Guantanamo Bay prison remains open, despite a Democratic-led effort to close it.
And the legal rights of military detainees are the same as the Republicans left them last year — subject to potentially harsh interrogations without access to federal courts or an automatic right to legal counsel.
Also intact is Bush’s ban on aid to international family planning groups that offer abortions, even though Democrats say the policy has enabled the spread of HIV and cost U.S. influence abroad.
The Democrats’ poor batting average in the year since retaking control of Congress is caused primarily by their narrow majority status, which has left them unable to overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate, let alone override a presidential veto.
On Iraq in particular, Congress this year voted repeatedly to set a timetable for troop withdrawals. Each time, the anti-war measure would scrape by in the House only to sink in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Democrats caucus with a narrow 51-49 majority.
But their inability to effect change also reflects Democrats’ all-or-nothing approach. On Iraq, where public opinion was decidedly in their favor, Democrats showed little interest in compromising with Republicans.
Their unyielding stance cost them even modest gains in trying to force Bush’s hand to bring troops home.
Indeed, the only significant piece of war legislation to be signed by Bush this year was drafted by Sen. John Warner of Virginia, a moderate Republican who sided with Democrats in opposing Bush’s decision to send some 30,000 additional troops into Iraq.
Warner’s bill demanded that two separate independent audits be conducted of progress in Iraq and required that the four-star general in charge of Iraq operations, Gen. David Petraeus, testify before Congress.
Left on the cutting room floor this year were other bipartisan proposals, including one by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., that would have restricted the mission of U.S. troops to non-combat roles in Iraq but not set a date for troop withdrawals.
This week, as the Senate wrapped up the year’s work, Democrats offered their most tempered Iraq proposal to date: a resolution expressing the sense of Congress that U.S. troops limit missions to counterterrorism, training the Iraqis and force protection. But the last-ditch effort was too late, with only six Republicans joining it.
The measure failed on a 50-45 vote, ten short of the 60 needed to advance. Five Democrats, expected to have supported the resolution, were not present.
Senate Republican Whip Trent Lott said Democrats never learned the art of the possible and focused too much on “sticking it” to Bush, rather than making progress.
Lott, R-Miss., said Republicans were able to shore up support for the war by allowing members to voice their concerns and occasionally vote against the party. The goal by GOP leadership, he said, was not to allow too many war votes to pile up at once so as to keep the pressure off members.
“It was a challenge on every vote” to keep the GOP unified, Lott said. “But we did it, over and over and over again.”
For their part, Democrats say they miscalculated Republican loyalty to a politically unpopular president. But yielding ground to Republicans on Iraq would have been futile, Senate Democratic Whip Richard Durbin said.
“Virtually all of the compromises they suggested would not have changed any of the policies in Iraq,” said Durbin, D-Ill. “So it would have been cover for them, it would have been a veil for them to say ‘We voted for change.’ But at the end of the day, nothing would have happened.”
While Democrats may not have won the big fights with Bush this year, they have made strides on lower-profile issues they say are still significant.
Most recently, Congress passed a defense policy bill that puts new restrictions on private contractors in Iraq and steps up oversight of reconstruction spending.
Democrats also have put more money toward improving the readiness of combat forces worn down by battle in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Through hearings, Democrats have grilled Bush’s Cabinet members on the slow progress being made in Iraq and shone light on the corruption and fraud cases that have plagued reconstruction efforts.
In one particular show of defiance, Democrats forced Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace to step down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When Pace came up for congressional confirmation, Democrats objected so as to make clear that they opposed Bush’s military strategy.
Still, Democrats say they know their poll numbers are down because of the gridlock. Congress’ approval ratings remain mired at about 25 percent, according to a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “All I can say is we’re going to keep trying,” he added.
Still, Democrats say they don’t expect much to change next year, unless more Republicans are willing to break ranks.
“Whether the Senate will force the change depends on 60 senators, and we don’t have 60 senators,” Durbin said.
Anne Flaherty covers military and foreign affairs for The Associated Press.
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