Not much left to lose

December 19, 2007

Congressional Democrats are concluding their first year in the majority by taking a shellacking in showdowns with President Bush.

A months-long budget battle ended this week with the Democrats caving in to Mr. Bush's demand that no strings be tied to Iraq war funding and that domestic spending remain essentially flat. The score in a separate high-profile dispute over expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program stands at Bush 2 (vetoes), Congress 0 (legislation signed into law.)

Mr. Bush declares victory for his war policy and his sporadically applied fiscal conservatism. But the strength of his position is that he's an unpopular president on the way out of office. What's he got to lose?

He can afford, for example, to threaten the widely supported children's health program - on the ridiculous grounds of blocking a cigarette tax increase - because he's not worried about offending voters. Dispirited Republicans and their GOP colleagues also departing office next year are making his vetoes stick.

Democrats are in the much weaker position of caring if they get blamed for delaying money to the troops or shutting down the government for lack of a budget agreement. They had to use some deft bookkeeping devices just to try to put a little of their own imprint on the spending plan for the year. That involved chiseling away at a few questionable White House priorities, such as abstinence education, expansion of the border fence with Mexico and some weapons programs, to produce a bit more social spending.

Democratic priorities included heating subsidies for the poor, Amtrak, housing aid, food programs, medical research and security grants to local police agencies. But in some cases, such as the extra $3.7 billion for veterans, the money was categorized as "emergency" spending, which doesn't count against the deficit - a tactic that violates at least the spirit of the Democrats' promises of pay-as-you-go.

What's more, the omnibus budget measure includes more than 9,000 pet project "earmarks," many no doubt quite worthwhile but nonetheless reflective of a corrupting practice.

This was supposed to be the year to get solid work done before the 2008 presidential campaign season. Sadly, real progress will apparently have to wait for the next president and Congress to take office in 2009.

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