The attacks that al Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalists have mounted on the United States and other Western interests, culminating in the 9/11 horror, are infamous. But Osama bin Laden could never do the damage to the United States that an unscrupulous president can, who is determined to exercise executive powers regardless of Congress or the Constitution.
At Ground Zero in Manhattan on Sept. 12, 2001, where the rest of the world saw the rubble of the World Trade Center, Karl Rove and George W. Bush saw opportunity.
While members of Congress gathered arm-in-arm outside the Capitol to show bipartisan solidarity, Bush's Justice Department put finishing touches on the 342-page "USA PATRIOT Act" that would give the federal government sweeping new powers to snoop and detain suspicious characters.
When Democratic Senate leaders balked at the suspension of habeas corpus and other constitutional transgressions, a few weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, in October 2001, letters containing weapons-grade anthrax were mailed to the offices of several news media as well as then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy, both Democrats. Five people died and 17 others were infected. The PATRIOT Act got Senate approval but the anthrax cases remain unsolved.
With popular support soaring for his war on terror, Bush also saw the opportunity to move his domestic agenda and invade Iraq. When Democrats dragged their feet, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney attacked their patriotism. In the most outrageous case, Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., a triple amputee and decorated Vietnam veteran, found that his running mates were Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as he got out-patrioted by draft-dodger Saxby Chambliss (R). By playing on the fear of terrorism, the GOP picked up a net gain of two seats and regained a 51-49 Senate majority in the 2002 election. They added another four seats in 2004.
The inept response to Hurricane Katrina's destruction of the Gulf Coast and the flooding of New Orleans in late August 2005 with most of the Louisiana National Guard's equipment stuck in Iraq finally exposed the corruption and incompetence of the Bush administration in unforgettable images that even Fox News could not ignore. With increasing doubts about the Iraq occupation on top of GOP corruption scandals, voters gave Democrats majorities of both the House and Senate in 2006.
When the Democrats took control of Congress in January, they knew that progressive initiatives would get stalled in the Senate, but at least they were supposed to gain subpoena power. The Bush administration responded with contempt of congressional oversight. The White House ignores subpoenas or, if presidential aides or Cabinet members show up, give testimony that is dissembling, contradictory and/or unworthy of belief.
Democrats have been cautious in their response. House Democratic leaders recently put off a vote on a criminal contempt resolution against White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, Politico magazine reported Sept. 11. The decision by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) postpones a constitutional showdown between Congress and President Bush over the extent of executive privilege and the president's ability to fend off congressional investigations.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) reportedly is uncomfortable with the delay. He worries the House will be seen as toothless unless it moves quickly to hold top officials in contempt for failing to provide documents and testimony in congressional probes. The House Judiciary Committee approved contempt citations against Bolten and Miers on July 25, after the two failed to comply with subpoenas as part of the committee's investigation into the sacking of nine US attorneys.
With a 29-seat majority in the House and a virtual deadlock in the Senate, Democrats need to put pressure on the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress in the next year. Democrats have been in the majority in Congress for eight months but still haven't gotten used to the idea that George W. Bush is no longer calling the shots.
Health care reform would be a good issue to put the GOP on the spot. Bush continues to oppose expansion of any government health program at the expense of private insurance companies. The administration adopted new standards in August that would make it much more difficult for states to expand the popular Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to children in middle-income families. Bush even told working parents that they should take their kids to hospital emergency rooms when they get sick if they can't afford private insurance.
The House and Senate has passed bills that would expand the children's health program. House Democrats pushed through legislation Aug. 1 to add 6 million lower-income children to the program while making deep cuts in federal payments to Medicare HMOs, defying a veto threat from Bush. On a 225-204, mostly party-line vote, the House passed the legislation, which would add $50 billion to the decade-old State Children's Health Insurance Program and roll back years of Republican-driven changes to Medicare. The bill would slash federal payments to private insurance companies that cover elderly and disabled patients under Medicare and shift money to doctors and benefits for lower-income beneficiaries. The rest of the children's health increase would come from tobacco tax increases.
The House will have to negotiate differences with the Senate, which on Aug. 2 passed a more limited $35 billion expansion of the children's health care program which would allow 3.3 million more kids to enroll without broader Medicare changes. With bipartisan support the Senate bill passed 68-31, enough to override a threatened veto.
Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) won re-election in 2004 despite then-US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay targeting him for defeat in the controversial mid-decade gerrymandering by the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature. The Texas Observer noted that Edwards prevailed in a district that was 64% Republican by tying his opponent, state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, to the bill that cut Texas CHIP in 2003. "I beat Arlene Wohlgemuth in the most Republican congressional district in America represented by a Democrat because she wrote the law that gutted the CHIP program in Texas," Edwards told the Observer.
Wohlgemuth defended the CHIP cuts in that 2004 campaign with the same spin that some Republicans are using now: that families who cold afford private insurance are using CHIP to mooch off the government, wasting taxpayer money. That argument didn't work, the Observer noted.
"The reality is conservatives should support CHIP," Edwards said. "It is helping people who are trying to help themselves. It is helping people who have tried their best to stay off welfare and go to work."
Edwards ran a devastating ad that showed a single mother whose daughter had lost CHIP coverage. He credits the spot with helping to sink Wohlgemuth's candidacy. And last spring, many GOP lawmakers voted to partially restore the CHIP cuts in Texas.
Edwards gave working-class Texans a reason to vote for him and they crossed party lines to send him back to Washington.
Democratic leaders need to set caution aside and show working-class Americans they will stand up for health care for all as well as fair trade policies that promote jobs in the United States and investment in the infrastructure of the United States that puts Americans to work at good-paying jobs.
Make Republican senators filibuster those progressive initiatives -- and none of these gentlemen's filibusters; make 'em talk all night. Then force the GOP to explain their perfidy next year at the polls. -- JMC
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