By ZACHARY COILE
San Francisco Chronicle
December 28, 2007
In the morning, she beamed a wide smile as she stood beside President Bush while he signed an energy bill with the first major increase in fuel economy standards in 30 years.
But by Wednesday afternoon, her party was facing two of its biggest defeats. To keep the alternative minimum tax from hitting 20 million Americans next year, Democrats had to abandon their pledge not to pass any legislation that increased the deficit.
Then Pelosi, whose party took control of Congress pledging to change course in Iraq, watched the House approve $70 billion in war funding, part of a budget deal that avoided a government shutdown. Members of her own party denounced it as a capitulation to the White House.
"The war in Iraq is the biggest disappointment for us, the inability to stop the war," Pelosi told reporters in a group interview in her ceremonial office just hours before the war vote. She quickly pegged the blame on congressional Republicans.
The Democrats' failure to shift the war's direction, their No. 1 priority for the year, has eclipsed many of the party's successes on other issues, including raising the minimum wage for the first time in a decade and passing the strongest ethics and lobbying reforms since Watergate.
And Bush, despite his lame-duck status, outflanked Democrats in the end-of-year budget fight -- forcing them to accept his number, $555 billion in domestic spending, and funding for Iraq -- simply by refusing to yield.
Asked about the setbacks last week, Pelosi, as she has all year, flashed her most optimistic smile and refused to be drawn into the criticism.
But if Pelosi is smiling, so are Republicans. They began the year defeated and demoralized. But they have since shown surprising unity, backing the president on the war and finding new purpose in blocking Democrats' spending initiatives.
"We've stood up to them every step of the way," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week.
The tense mood among Democrats in the session's final weeks was a marked contrast from the festive first weeks of the new Congress, when Pelosi was sworn in as the nation's first female speaker.
Democrats took off on a legislative sprint in which they quickly approved their "Six for '06" agenda including raising the minimum wage, cutting interest rates on student loans, backing federally funded embryonic stem cell research, and revoking tax breaks for oil companies.
But the bills bogged down in the Senate, where the Democrats' 51-49 majority is so thin it allowed Republicans to determine what would be passed. Democrats have struggled to get the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters, which are now an almost daily experience in the Senate.
"Pelosi suffered the same ailment that (former Republican House Speaker) Newt Gingrich suffered from when he became speaker: Senate-itis," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "A lot of what the House accomplished this year either sat in the Senate or got eviscerated by the Senate. What you are left with is not nearly as robust as what you started with."
Even the energy bill, the Democrats' crowning achievement, was stripped of a broad tax package and a renewable electricity standard that would have pushed the nation toward wind and solar power. Still, the fuel economy piece alone is expected to save 2.3 million barrels of oil a day by 2020 -- more than the United States currently imports from the Persian Gulf.
Pelosi had to make some painful trade-offs. To get the minimum wage hike signed, Democrats had to attach it to a $120 billion war spending bill.
Other elements of her agenda fell victim to Bush's veto pen. Congress twice passed a bill with bipartisan support to expand the state children's health insurance program to cover 4 million more children. Bush twice vetoed it, forcing Democrats to settle for an 18-month extension of the current program.
An inventory of House action during Pelosi's first year would include:
-- Passed an energy bill raising fuel economy standards for the first time in 30 years, the equivalent today of taking 28 million cars off the road by 2020.
-- Approved a major cut in interest rates on student loans to make college more affordable.
-- Passed the strongest ethics reforms since Watergate, banning gifts from lobbyists and making earmarks more transparent.
-- Secured the largest increase in veterans' benefits in history.
-- Increased the minimum wage for the first time in a decade, from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 over three years.
-- Despite repeated votes, failed to enact any major changes in Iraq war policy.
-- Tried to expand the state children's health insurance program to cover 4 million more children, but was blocked by President Bush and House Republicans.
-- Sparked a diplomatic fight with Turkey by pushing a resolution condemning the country's mass killing of Armenians during World War I.
-- Abandoned the party's "pay-as-you-go" budget rules to avoid letting the alternative minimum tax hit 20 million Americans.
-- Accepted Bush's spending limits in the end-of-the-year budget fight to avoid shutting down the federal government.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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