WASHINGTON - Democrats prepared yesterday for major concessions on war funding, children's health insurance, taxes and energy, because they could not overcome vetoes by President Bush.
The setbacks are a stinging disappointment for Democrats, who took control of the House and Senate with narrow majorities this year but never found a formula for coaxing compromises from Bush and his GOP supporters. Republicans blame Democratic hubris, but both sides agree on one thing: Voters will have a clear choice in 2008 on how Congress should be run.
The pain is deeper in the House. Many Democrats hoped to wind down the war, greatly expand children's health insurance, promote renewable-fuel use, and curb deficit spending, mostly by raising taxes on some groups while cutting taxes elsewhere.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D., Md.) said Democrats had done all they could. "We were not elected to do what the president tells us to do," Hoyer said. But "if he vetoes and we can't override the veto, then we have to go in some other direction."
In every case, Bush's veto powers or senators' filibuster powers have forced Democrats to retreat. Ending a filibuster requires 60 votes in the Senate, and overriding a veto requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate - margins the Democrats have not been able to muster.
The magnitude of the concessions became clearer yesterday, but some details will not be known until next week.
On overall spending, which must be resolved before the year-end recess, Democrats largely yielded to Bush's demands. They wanted to add $22 billion for various programs to Bush's $933 billion plan for the one-third of the budget that Congress passes each year in appropriations bills.
The effort dissolved yesterday, when Democratic negotiators tentatively agreed to come down to Bush's figure, except for adding an extra $3.5 billion for veterans' health care. House GOP Whip Roy Blunt called that a gimmick to get around Bush's budget cap and said Republicans would oppose the move, but Democrats predicted they could prevail.
The fate of about $7 billion in so-called emergency spending that includes many items, such as enhanced border security, supported by Republicans, remained up in the air.
While barely able to budge Bush on the overall spending target, Democrats vowed to protect their priorities as much as possible.
Also yesterday, House Democrats gave up on months of negotiations meant to craft a veto-proof bill to add billions of dollars, and four million enrollees, to the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Unable to win an additional 20 or so Republicans to their side, they agreed merely to continue the program in roughly its current form. Bush vetoed one expansion of the program earlier and another one yesterday.
House Democrats also acknowledged they could not overcome Senate opposition to an effort to require more use of renewable energy.
Similarly, House leaders conceded they had little hope of forcing the Senate to accept new taxes on targeted investors. The proposed increases, blocked by Senate Republicans, were meant to offset the cost of protecting many middle-class taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax for one year.
The bitterest pill for House Democrats is their continued inability to force U.S. troop withdrawals in exchange for continued funding of the Iraq war. Top Democrats said the administration would get a significant portion of its war spending request, with no strings attached.
The White House has cast the spending impasse as Democrats in disarray. The slow pace of passing annual spending bills has allowed Bush to stage events at which he mocks Democratic lawmakers as failing to accomplish even their most basic obligations. Democrats contend that Bush is showing stubbornness, not leadership, in resolving the standoff.
Dispirited House Democrats tried to cast the party's multiple concessions in the best possible light.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D., Ill.), the third-ranking House leader, said good things would come from all the bills, even if they were compromised in bids to win Senate passage and Bush's signature. The energy bill will force cars to be more fuel-efficient, he said, and the tax bill will expand eligibility for a child tax credit.
On Iraq funding, he said this was the first time Bush "won't get his full request." Bush asked for $196 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but Congress will approve considerably less, at least for now, he said.
But Republicans taunted Democrats. "It's the cave-in Congress," said Rep. Tom Davis (R., Va.). If Democrats want to change Iraq policy, he said, they must have the courage to cut off funding and then be "accountable for what happens."