Two Cheers for the Dems: Reflections on a Partisan Year


Despite the bipartisan flag-waving over the war in Afghanistan, this year saw the emergence of the most partisan party-line voting this country has seen since at least the Depression.

With party control divided between the houses of Congress, we regularly saw the House passing right-wing legislation (drilling in Alaska National Wildlife Refuge as an example) with the Dems in the Senate stripping it from legislation on their side of the aisle. Or as commonly this year, we saw the Senate Democrats passing progressive bills (a Patient Bill of Rights, Mental Health Parity, Campaign Finance Reform), only to see it defeated in the House with GOP party line discipline.

And when Bush was nickel-and-diming New York City, refusing to release the money promised for reconstruction, it was the Dems fighting to force him to release the money. The House GOP defeated an amendment to the defense bill for aid to New York in late November, but the Senate Democratic leadership forced the aid through on their side and, in conference, substantially passed the New York City aid package in the final bill.

What is remarkable is how few members of either party were crossing party lines this year ó bills like Fast Track, which was defeated in 1997 with a number of GOP members siding with Dems opposed to it, had only a handful of Democratic votes this year but nearly unanimous Republican votes to force its passage in the House.

Similarly, every Republican in the Senate voted to repeal ergonomics standards pushed through under the Clinton administration, with all but six Democrats opposed. These were the first real occupational health and safety improvements passed in decades, to prevent the suffering and the billions in lost wages suffered by workers due to repetitive stress injury on the job. Yet similar party-line voting in the House led to complete repeal of those standards, a blow to workers nationwide crippled by injuries on the job.

Even on issues like the tax cuts and civil liberties, where progressives suffered grievous losses this year, the Democrats, despite some dramatic moments of cowardice, did quite a bit to fight them and blunted some of their worst excesses.

On civil liberties, Senate Dems used their new majority to block confirmation of many of Bush's most dangerous judicial nominees. Sen. Jim Jeffords' defection killed a few nominations outright as they withdrew in the face of certain defeat, including conservative former Congressman Chris Cox. Other controversial right-wing nominees like Jeffrey Sutton (see the 5/1/01 PP) were refused Judiciary hearings and only less controversial nominees have been approved. Reflecting the fact that any Supreme Court nominee by Bush would face almost certain opposition, Sandra Day O'Connor, who was rumored to be planning retirement, suddenly announced she was staying for the foreseeable future.

In the wake of S11 and Attorney General Ashcroft's call for police state legislation, in the House, Democrats like John Conyers worked to write a more restrained compromise bill through the Judiciary Committee, only to see the House GOP leadership override the committee to substitute the far more draconian version passed. All Democrats in the House voted to block this move by the GOP-controlled Rules committee, but they were outvoted. While only 79 Dems in the House had the courage to vote against the final passage, Democrats in both the House and Senate did force through sunset provisions to automatically repeal most of its major provisions in a few years, allowing progressives the opportunity under hopefully more favorable conditions to block attempts by conservatives to pass a new bill to retain them.

Nothing highlighted the dramatic partisan divide between the parties more than the series of party-line votes, often hair-thin 50-50 and 51-49 votes, defeating Democratic amendments to Bush's spring tax bill. The GOP defeated a series of amendment that would have created a radically different bill. These defeated Democratic amendments included:

• Scaling back the top-rate cut in favor of widening the 15% bracket for middle class families

• Keeping the estate tax on fortunes worth more than $4 million

• Create a "trigger" to eliminate all tax cuts if the deficit explodes

• Providing a prescription drug benefit through Medicare while scaling back the top rate cut

The differences between the Bush bill, sending trillions of dollars in the next decades to the wealthiest voters versus the Democratic votes for directing tax relief to working families could not be starker.

Beyond the individual votes, this year showed why partisan control of a chamber matters. While Senate rules prevented a filibuster of the bill in the spring, Daschle was able to rally Dems this past December to defeat Bush's attempt at another corporate tax giveaway in his so-called stimulus bill.

While the Dems are not all progressives would want, in the roll call of votes on amendment after amendment, we do see the reality of far more stark partisan division than conventional wisdom admits, a divide only masked by the razor-thin margins held by each party. Those who ask why Dems are less progressive than they were 30 years ago ignore the reality that the real problem is there are fewer of them in Congress today than then, so they have less ability to pass landmark legislation like Medicare.

More progressive Democrats would be nice, but just electing more Democrats in general would make a big difference in overcoming the roadblocks to economic and social justice represented by partisan right-wing Republican power.

Nathan Newman is a longtime union and community activist, a national vice president of the National Lawyers Guild and author of the forthcoming book Net Loss on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email or see

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