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Congress ends session that fell short

Democrats came up small on big issues such as Iraq and taxes.

WASHINGTON - The first Democratic-led Congress in a dozen years limped out of Washington last night with a lengthy list of accomplishments, from the first increase in fuel-efficiency standards in a generation to the first minimum-wage rise in a decade.

But Democrats' failure to address the central issues that swept them to power left even the most partisan of them dissatisfied and Congress mired at a historic low in public esteem.

Handed control of Congress last year after making promises to end the war in Iraq, restore fiscal discipline in Washington and check President Bush's powers, Democrats instead closed the first session of the 110th Congress with House votes that sent Bush $70 billion in war funding, with no strings attached, and a $50 billion alternative-minimum-tax measure that shattered their pledge not to add to the deficit.

"I'm not going to let a lot of hard work go unnoticed, but I'm not going to hand out party hats either," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois.

On Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said yesterday: "Nobody is more disappointed with the fact that we couldn't change that than I am." But Pelosi was not about to accept Republican assertions that her first year as speaker has been unsuccessful, saying: "Almost everything we've done has been historic."

Unable to garner enough votes from their own party, House Democratic leaders had to turn to Republicans to win passage of a $555 billion domestic spending bill after the Senate appended $70 billion to it for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war funding passed the House, 272-142, with Democrats voting, 141-78, against it.

The Democratic leaders again had to appeal to Republicans to win passage of a measure to stave off the growth of the alternative minimum tax, because fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats were in open revolt and refused to go along.

The year's finale angered the entire sweep of the Democratic coalition, from the antiwar left to new Southern conservatives who helped bring Democrats to power last year.

"This is a blank check," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.). "The new money in this bill represents one cave-in too many. It is an endorsement of George Bush's policy of endless war."

Ironically, the Democrats accomplished much of what they promised last year. Of the six issues on the Democrats "Six for '06" agenda, congressional Democrats sent five to the president, and won his signature on four: a minimum-wage increase, implementation of the homeland security recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, college-cost reduction, and an energy law that mandates conservation and the use of more renewable energy. Federal funding for stem-cell research was vetoed.

Democrats secured the biggest overhaul of ethics and lobbying rules since Watergate. And they passed a slew of legislation that has gotten little notice, such as more money for math and science teachers who obtain more credentials in their field, tax relief for homeowners in foreclosure, a doubling of basic-research funding, and reclamation projects for the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast.

With the exception of the new energy law, Pelosi characterized most of the year's accomplishments as cleaning up years of Republican neglect or congressional gridlock.

But the long-awaited showdown with Bush on the federal budget fizzled this week at an uncomfortable draw. The president got his war funding, while the Democrats - using "emergency" funding designations - broke through his spending limit by $11 billion, the amount they promised to add after Republicans rejected a proposed $22 billion domestic spending increase.

Remarkably, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) praised the final "omnibus" spending bill in glowing terms, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) called holding the top-line spending figure at Bush's preferred level "an extraordinary success."

But the disappointments have dominated the news, in large part because Democrats failed on some of the issues that they put front and center, and that their key constituents wanted most.

The military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains open. Bush's warrantless surveillance program was actually codified and expanded on the Democrats' watch. Lawmakers could not eliminate the use of harsh interrogation tactics by the CIA.

Democratic leaders also could not overcome Bush vetoes on an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Policies that liberals thought would be swept aside with the Democratic majority remain untouched, including a ban on federal funding for international family planning organizations that offer abortions.

Efforts to change Bush's policies in Iraq took on the look of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. From the first days of the 110th Congress to the last hours of this week, Bush prevailed on every Iraq-themed fight, beginning in February with a resolution that opposed the winter troop surge and ending with this week's granting of $70 billion in unrestricted war funds.

Some senior Democrats have grown so distraught that they do not expect any significant change in Iraq policy unless a Democrat wins the White House in 2008.

Local Projects Funded in Bill

The spending bill completed yesterday includes thousands of "earmarks" promoted by lawmakers. Here is a sampling of projects in the Philadelphia area and South Jersey that received funding under the bill:

$18.5 million

for the Philadelphia to the Sea maintenance dredging project on the Delaware River in Philadelphia and Delaware County.

$2.45 million

for SEPTA to buy hybrid-electric buses, to be operated throughout the five-county SEPTA service area, plus $656,600 for SEPTA to enhance safety and security systems.

$1.499 million

for the Franklin Institute Science Museum to rehabilitate the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial and Franklin statue.

$1.034 million

for Philadelphia's Youth Violence Reduction Partnership, a multiagency program to reduce youth violence and homicide rates.


to Rutgers University School of Law in Camden for scholarships, internships and public-interest programming.


for land acquisition at the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge.


for the Atlantic City International Airport for an apron expansion to enhance safety and expand capacity.


for 911 communication system upgrades in Camden County.


for Philadelphia's Green City Initiative to clean up 450,000 square feet of vacant land.


for aquaculture research at the Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in Delaware County.

SOURCES: Offices of Sens. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), Bob Casey (D., Pa.), Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), Robert Menendez (D., Pa.), and Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.).

How They Voted

Representatives from the Philadelphia area who voted to approve the catchall spending bill that includes money for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were Michael N. Castle (R., Del.), Charles W. Dent (R., Pa.) Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), Tim Holden (D., Pa.), Frank A. LoBiondo (R., N.J.), Joseph R. Pitts (R., Pa.), H. James Saxton (R., N.J.), Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.), Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) and Christopher H. Smith (R., N.J.).

Voting against the bill were Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.), Robert A. Brady (D., Pa.), Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) and Patrick Murphy (D., Pa.).