Congress recesses amid Democratic achievements
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After months of being flogged for accomplishing little, Democrats who control Congress headed into a summer recess having passed several high-profile bills from raising the minimum wage to bolstering U.S. security and expanding children's health care.
Their top priority -- ending the Iraq war -- remains frustratingly unfulfilled. But the Democrats who took over in January were able to go home early on Sunday for a monthlong break having won more support in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives for bringing combat troops home by early next year, marking a significant turnaround from last year.
Democrats also will be able to batter President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans for sticking with a war policy that droves of Americans increasingly oppose.
And it was Bush's fellow conservatives who helped kill his top domestic priority, immigration reform.
Much of the Democrats' progress was incremental and out of the spotlight of the fights with Bush over the Iraq war, now in its fifth year. While those battles were raging, Democrats were able to plow ahead with bills they say will fulfill campaign promises to improve national security and help the neediest.
"We have made more progress in the last seven days than previous congresses made in the last seven years," Democratic leaders boasted about the spurt of legislation that passed in the final days.
Some nonpartisan observers agreed Democrats had reason to boast.
"Democrats have had a good run legislatively over the past few weeks and that does help them going into the recess," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
That would be welcome news for a Congress that this year has seen its public approval ratings dip even below Bush's chronically low polling. A Pew Research Center survey released on Thursday said Bush scored a 29 percent approval rating, while Democratic leaders were at a similarly lethargic 33 percent.
Even though those poor ratings do not necessarily translate into public support for Republican lawmakers, Democrats will have their work cut out for them, trying to convince voters back home that they have responded to last November's call for change.
And they will face another challenge when they return from recess in early September when the future of the Iraq war will again take center stage with a mid-September progress report to Congress.
A battle over funding the government in the fiscal year starting October 1 also looms, with Bush having promised to veto bills that spend more than he has asked for.
Democrats will point to these accomplishments:
* The first minimum wage increase in a decade went into effect in July helping the lowest-paid workers. Republicans repeatedly blocked the pay hike when they controlled Congress.
* Republicans lost their majority in last November's elections largely because of the Iraq war, but also due to voter disgust with ethics violations that left some Republican lawmakers and aides in jail or under investigation. Democrats pushed through ethics and lobbying reforms that public advocacy groups applauded while also saying the provisions could have been stronger. Bush is expected to sign the bill into law.
* Congress passed, and Bush signed into law on Friday, a series of post-September 11 anti-terrorism steps that had been recommended by an independent commission in 2004. These include broader screening of cargo bound for the United States, allocating more federal grants to cities at high-risk of attack and improving emergency workers' communications systems so they can better coordinate during an attack or natural disaster.
* The House and Senate passed different versions of a bill to significantly expand child health insurance coverage for those in low-income families not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. Bush has threatened to veto either version, but Democrats may be able to override him.
* The House and Senate passed bills to help students handle soaring college costs and crack down on misconduct in the student loan industry. They likely will send Bush a bill in September that goes directly to the stressed wallets of middle-class parents.
* A popular measure allowing broader stem cell research that supporters hope will help cure Parkinson's disease and other incurable illnesses was passed a second time and Bush vetoed it a second time.
* Appealing to growing consumer fears of global warming and U.S. reliance on foreign oil, the Senate passed a bill mandating that cars get 40 percent better fuel efficiency and encouraging a dramatic increase in ethanol as a fuel. Democrats hope to send Bush a bill after the August recess.
* A fiscal 2008 budget plan passed with new controls that attempt to impose fiscal responsibility after years of huge budget deficits. Under the plan, any new tax cuts or spending increases would have to be paid for. Republicans complain there is no guarantee Bush's tax cuts will be renewed after 2010.
* After six years of mostly getting a free pass from Republicans, the Bush administration is facing oversight by committees with probes ranging from the Justice Department's firing of federal prosecutors to the Pentagon's handling of the death in Afghanistan of ex-football player Pat Tillman.
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