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US Congress Ends 2007 Session With Mixed Record


Democrats took control of Congress for the first time in 12 years in 2007, promising to fulfill an ambitious legislative agenda and to change the course of the unpopular war in Iraq. They conclude the year accomplishing few of their key priorities, including affecting the course of the war. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

President Bush offered his assessment of the Democratic-led Congress at a recent appearance with reporters.

"The end of 2007 is approaching fast, and the new Congress has little to show for it," said President Bush.

The American people appear frustrated with Congress, too. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll finds that only 21 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Congress, with 64 percent disapproving.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans acknowledge they haven't accomplished as much as they would have liked, and are blaming each other.

Republicans say Democrats refuse to compromise. Senator John Cornyn is a Texas Republican:

"When one side or the other tries to jam their agenda down the throats of the other side, it does not work," said Senator Cornyn. "Exhibit A [the example] is the dismal record of this broken Congress during this last year."

But Democrats say Senate Republicans are to blame, calling them obstructionists. Under Senate rules, the minority can block legislation using procedural tactics. Sixty votes are needed to overcome such tactics, known as filibusters, but Democrats only hold a 51 to 49 seat majority.

Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, says Republicans' use of the tactics has neared record levels, and predicts they will pay politically in congressional election less than a year from now.

"They are filibustering themselves out of their seats next November," said Senator Schumer. "The American people dramatically want change. Every time they stop the wheels of progress, every time they stop us from doing things that America wants, they are hurting the country."

Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada blames President Bush for his unwillingness to compromise.

"President Bush reminds me of somebody who was a lawyer, who would never negotiate anything, a nice guy, pleasant to visit with, but he was impossible to deal with on any case that he had," said Senator Reid. "That is what we have with President Bush. He is impossible, and he has been for seven years, to deal with."

But President Bush and his Republican allies in Congress defend their strategy, saying they are stopping Democrats from legislating on matters that are not in Americans' best interest.

Despite much partisan wrangling, lawmakers did manage to accomplish several modest achievements - including approving measures to improve homeland security as recommended by the commission that investigated the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States. In addition, Congress overrode a presidential veto on a bill to restore the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, and reformed congressional ethics and lobbying rules.

Democrats were not as successful in overriding vetoes of popular legislation to deliver health care to children of low-income families and expand stem cell research to help cure diseases.

But more importantly, Democrats failed to make good on key priorities, including reforming the nation's immigration system and setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Democrats, who were elected to the majority in large part as a result of Americans' dissatisfaction with the course of the war, are especially disappointed that they were not able to push through a withdrawal timeline, despite dozens of attempts. They abandoned the effort in the waning weeks of the congressional session.

One political analyst says the reason the Democrats' had trouble making good on their vow to change the course of the war is in large part the influence that the president wields - even as his second term in office winds down.

Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey:

"The inability of Congress to pass any kind of legislation limiting the American role in Iraq was a reflection of the fact that the president would veto anything that Congress passed that imposed any kind of limitation on him," said Ross Baker. "The fact that the Democrats have withdrawn all such efforts is an indication of the power of even a weakened president in his final year in office to play a very commanding role in what gets done on Capitol Hill."

Baker also says changing circumstances on the ground in Iraq played a role in the Democrats' inability to get a withdrawal timetable approved. He says President Bush's decision to increase the number of troops in Iraq helped tamp down violence, which in turn, helped reduce the number of U.S. casualties.

"As that number has gone down I think the place of Iraq on the agenda of American people has gone down, and a great deal of the anger and frustration has dissipated," he said. "That could change if things get worse, and they easily could. But that certainly is a major element in the inability of the Democrats to get the votes they need."

Members of the Democratic Party's liberal base are angry that their party's majority in Congress has not been able to set a timetable for withdrawal. Democratic leaders are vowing to try again next year.

Senator Carl Levin is a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee:

"The effort is not over," said Senator Levin. "We may not be able to get the votes, but we are going to keep on trying. I think we are duty-bound to see if we can get some kind of timetable in place."

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat of California sought to accentuate the positive, suggesting that a timetable for a troop withdrawal from Iraq and other agenda items that did not pass this year could be approved if more Democrats are elected next year.

"We signaled change," said e Nancy Pelosi. "We made a difference. And now we are showing that in order to get much more of this done - we can some of it done this year, but we need a Democratic president and we need stronger majorities in the House and Senate."

All 435 House seats and 35 of the 100 Senate seats will be on the ballot in November's elections.