Since Democrats took control of Congress seven months ago, they provoked several showdowns over the Iraq war and fired off hundreds of probes of the Bush administration. But until recently they passed few laws.
As Congress's approval ratings hover near record lows, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were under the gun to produce something before their August recess – and they did, passing bills ranging from lobbying and ethics to healthcare and homeland security.
"It's not a do-nothing Congress," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. "There is very tough partisanship in the Congress and civility is at a low point, but the Democrats have been able to get a lot of legislation on the table. They've changed the debate over what Congress has to consider and put a lot of pressure on Republicans to bend on some issues, such as Iraq and the war."
Democrats had promised action on the Iraq war when they were swept into power after 12 years of GOP control. But they have yet to tie war funding to conditions on ending the war or redeploying US forces. That fight will have to wait until September.
Before Congress adjourned early Sunday morning, House Democrats passed a $459.6 billion defense spending bill for fiscal year 2008, two energy bills, $250 million to repair the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis, and a measure to expand health coverage for poor children, which President Bush has threatened to veto.
Over the objections of Democratic leaders, both the House and Senate also voted to give Mr. Bush more power in a controversial terrorist surveillance program.
After months of gridlock, Congress also sent to Bush's desk sweeping ethics and lobby reform. Last week, Bush signed into law recommendations of the 9/11 commission that had failed to pass in the past, including expanded screening of cargo.
"It took a lot longer than we had hoped for, but with the passage of this bill, about 80 percent of our recommendations have been put into law," says former Rep. Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the 9/11 commission.
The public is frustrated that Congress has been slow to move on important issues. Only 27 percent of Americans say they approve of the way Congress is handling its job, according to a recent Gallup Poll. But the rating for GOP lawmakers is even lower than that for Democrats. GOP approval ratings have dropped six points in the past month to 18 percent – the lowest level since Bush took office in 2001, according to the survey released July 24.
Since taking over Congress, Democrats have ramped up more than 300 investigations on issues ranging from warrantless wiretapping, flawed Iraq war intelligence, and alleged contractor abuses to whether the Bush administration improperly fired US attorneys last year or interfered with climate- change research.
But for many Democratic party activists, the key issue is the war in Iraq. When Democratic lawmakers voted in May to fund war costs for fiscal year 2007 without conditions, their support among Democrats plunged.
On Saturday, Democrats again postponed votes on whether to link war funding to a deadline for the redeployment of US forces in Iraq. Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Defense appropriations subcommittee, withdrew amendments to the fiscal year 2008 defense spending bill that would have closed the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and required the Pentagon to meet minimum readiness standards before sending troops to Iraq.
By the time the defense bill came up in the House late Saturday night, lawmakers were shouting at each other across the aisles. On Thursday, 178 Republicans stormed out after Democrats claimed victory on a GOP motion to deny food stamps to workers in the country illegally. At the moment the presiding Democrat gaveled the vote shut, the official tally board showed that Democrats had lost 215 to 213.
But some of the toughest battles for Democrats when they return in the fall will be within their own ranks. On Saturday, the House passed two energy bills that mandate more use of clean-energy sources and end $16 billion in tax breaks for the oil and gas industries. But House Democrats deferred decisions over whether to mandate stronger fuel efficiency standards.
"We consciously avoided some of these controversies because we wanted to produce a consensus bill that could pass both the House and Senate and be signed into law by the president," said Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Congress also backed the Bush administration's calls for a "fix" for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which some Democrats and privacy groups strongly opposed.
The bill gives US intelligence agencies enhanced powers to monitor calls intercepted in the United States without a court warrant. In the run-up to the vote, Republican leaders said that Democrats would be blamed if they left for the August recess with "the terrorist loophole open." It passed the Senate 60-28 and the House 227-183, with unanimous GOP support.