Congress strains to find a voice

Lawmakers look to strengthen their role after the most polarized term in a half century.

The signing into law of a sweeping intelligence overhaul last week marked a rare bipartisan note for the exiting 108th Congress, the most polarized since World War II.

"Members are tired of partisan bickering and gridlock," says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who managed the intelligence bill through the Senate. "This could be a template for the 109th Congress."

As one congressional term closes and another comes into view, the US Congress is to many eyes a broken institution. The branch of government that the framers saw as the most powerful abdicated key powers, such as warmaking, to the White House. The budget process, created in the Watergate era to beef up Congress's powers against the executive branch, derailed. Even bills for which there was broad support often bogged down in intense partisan or regional standoffs.

"We have had decades of Congress ceding to the executive branch over the conduct of war and foreign affairs," says Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University. "It's been exacerbated by President Bush and a Republican majority, as opposed to divided government."

According to an analysis of annual party-unity votes by Congressional Quarterly, the 108th Congress was the most polarized in the past half century. On most votes, only a handful of lawmakers sided with the opposition. And the level of party loyalty this year was only slightly lower than 2003, the most partisan year in the five decades that CQ has tracked such votes.

It meant that efforts to pass legislation, even bills with broad support, were often stymied. Longstanding bids to rewrite federal energy and transportation policy floundered, as did reauthorization of key education and welfare bills. Other incompletes in the 108th Congress: bankruptcy and class-action reform, overhaul of the US Postal Service, and immigration reform.

Changing dynamics

But the election of Mr. Bush to a second term dramatically changes the incentives for Republicans on Capitol Hill. It could result in more pushback in the 109th Congress on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to soaring deficits.

"Now that the president is in place, there is more freedom for Republicans to raise questions, because they are not worried about his reelection," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University.

An early flash point will be over the administration's support of US forces in Iraq, where many lawmakers are planning visits between sessions. In recent days, GOP senators such as Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, John McCain of Arizona, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Trent Lott of Mississippi, and Ms. Collins have been as aggressive as Democrats in criticizing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the Iraq war.

Yet in the 108th Congress, with Republicans controlling gavels in both the House and Senate, aggressive oversight of the executive branch often languished. While the Senate investigated the high-intensity issue of prisoner abuse in Iraq, the House did not.

Even when congressional panels did ramp up hearings on the war, their recommendations were often dismissed by the White House - a sore point with many Republican chairmen.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana noted that his Senate Foreign Relations Committee held 23 hearings on postwar planning in Iraq, including raising questions about whether there was adequate protection for troops.

"When a sergeant stood up, however, and said something, he got some action," said Senator Lugar, citing $4.1 billion in additional security funding "suddenly moving ahead."

Democrats' strategy

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have been stepping up efforts to conduct oversight outside the traditional committee system. Last week, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee announced a series of major oversight and investigative hearings for the 109th Congress, including contracting abuses in Iraq.

While Democrats will not have recourse to the subpoena powers they would as committee chairs, whistle-blowers could fill in vital information, said DPC chair Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota in a briefing last week.

"Now, Congress has given the administration every penny it has requested for Iraq and Afghanistan," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois in the Democratic radio address on Saturday. "Yet today, 21 months after the invasion of Iraq, we still have 3,500 Humvees without protective armor."

Another flash point expected early in the new Congress is the final part of a Senate investigation on whether the Bush administration manipulated or politicized the intelligence used to make its case for the war in Iraq.

Last February, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence agreed to split its "review" into two phases: The first, completed before November elections, focused on the quality of intelligence estimates. The second, considered far more politically sensitive, looks at how intelligence was used or misused by administration officials in public statements and reports.

"Now, we will make this a top priority," says Wendy Morigi, a spokeswoman for Sen. John Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel.

Democrats also expect to find new GOP allies in challenging the White House on the size of federal budget deficits.

"I've had a number of prominent Republican senators call me and even meet with me in the last two weeks telling me they don't agree with the White House approach to not worry. They are very worried," says Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee.

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