Democrats need to stick to their guns on Capitol Hill. As lawmakers and political observers have suggested -- and as a recent numerical analysis by CQ Weekly confirmed -- Congress is at its most partisan level in decades (except, perhaps, for the 1995 session after Republicans took over Capitol Hill). In the Senate, Republicans voted with their party on 94 percent of votes; Democrats voted along party lines 85 percent of the time. In the House, Republicans held ranks on 91 percent of votes; Democrats did the same 87 percent of instances.
For House Democrats, the 87-percent unity figure is the highest since 1960. (In 1998, for example, it was 82 percent.)That's a credit to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who, in her first year as leader, has made it clear to House Democrats that they must toe the party line if they want to have any chance of stopping the Bush agenda. She's also made the GOP sweat out some tough votes, particularly on Medicare reform.
Senate Democrats would do well to follow the House's lead. Sure, their unity figures aren't far apart, but look deeper at the numbers and you'll see what I mean. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) voted against the Democratic position 91.5 percent of the time. Of course, many Democrats have written him off as being a full-blown Republican minus only the party label. But last year, Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas -- who recently left the Democratic Party and actually became a Republican -- voted against the GOP 49 percent of the time. And Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), considered a RINO (Republican In Name Only) by many conservatives, strayed from the party line just 28.8 percent of the time.
Anyone who thought that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) would bring a more moderate touch to the job [than his predecessor?] should look at the record. Frist held a 39-hour filibuster on judicial nominees and blocked most Democrats from the conference committees on energy and Medicare, two of the most important bills Congress considered last year. His No. 2, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), had led the fight against campaign-finance reform. And the Senate's third-ranking Republican is Rick Santorum (Pa.), who earlier this year compared gay sex to bigamy, incest and adultery.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and his whip, Harry Reid (D-Nev.), need to do a better job of keeping their party together. This is no time to be a wishy-washy Democrat. Speaking recently about the energy and Medicare bills, Daschle told CQ Weekly that Democrats who supported Medicare reform "just felt that we had to take what we could get. I found myself supporting the energy bill using the same strategy." The problem with Daschle's statement is that legislating on Capitol Hill is now a test of wills; as long as Republicans aren't willing to settle, Democrats shouldn't be, either.
While it's true that Congress isn't likely to get much accomplished this year, Democrats still can't let their guard down. The energy bill may have gasped its last breath in November, but select pieces of the legislation -- such as an initiative to double the production of ethanol -- are likely to be introduced separately in 2004. And don't be surprised to see yet another tax-cut proposal from the GOP, just in time for the 2004 campaign. Voters may like the idea of a tax cut in an election year, but they must also realize that we have staggering bills to pay, due largely to the Iraq War, homeland-security needs and the economic aftermath of September 11. (This is something that even former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill realized when he worked in the Bush administration.)
Considering tax cuts is an option the nation just can't afford. If Democrats give in by entertaining the idea of one more -- even if it's half of what the president proposes -- they effectively cede the field to the GOP and ensure that some cut is passed.
All signs suggest that the bitterly partisan situation in Congress isn't likely to get better anytime soon. Moderates from both parties are retiring. Among the Senate Democrats leaving Capitol Hill this year are Miller, John Breaux of Louisiana -- who voted against his party's position 41.9 percent of the time -- and Ernest "Fritz" Hollings of South Carolina, who abandoned the Democratic position on 10.3 percent of votes. That should make it easier for Daschle to rein in his troops (although the downside is that there's a good chance Republicans could take all three seats).
Both Daschle and Pelosi should aim to get their party-unity scores at least as high as those of the GOP, and, better yet, to exceed them (as well as work to get moderate Republicans to join Democrats more often). Because the GOP enjoys a majority on the Hill, anything less than the unity numbers Democrats have now could mean an effective shutdown of their role in Congress. All Democrats should realize that's too high a price to pay.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.