Tolerable Cruelty

The arrogance of Republicans on Capitol Hill is finally starting to catch up with them.

Last week, House Republicans missed their own deadline to pass a Medicare prescription-drug bill. President Bush suffered a defeat when the Senate voted Thursday to turn half of his $20.3 billion aid package to Iraq into a loan, despite heavy lobbying by Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials. And House Republicans are passing important bills -- on topics such as Head Start and Washington, D.C., school vouchers -- by one-vote margins, as Juliet Eilperin reported recently in The Washington Post.

This is happening partly because moderate, and even conservative, Republicans are increasingly standing up to President Bush. Why now, you ask? Because of both their own approaching elections and Bush's falling poll numbers. Republicans are realizing that what plays well in Washington might not be popular back home. And so you have right-wingers such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) saying some surprising things about Iraq reconstruction that the administration would rather not hear. "You can't buy your way out of this problem," Graham said last week. "You can't take $10 billion of taxpayer money, [while] people are losing their jobs, to buy your way out of a great lie. It would be terrible if the people of this country who have sacrificed so much wound up not getting a dime back."

But there's another reason many votes these days are squeakers: Republicans are ignoring Democrats while shaping legislation. As House Majority Whip Roy Blunt's (R-Mo.) floor director told Eilperin about the House Democrats, "For my purposes, they're irrelevant." While the GOP may control the House and Senate, it does so by slim margins. In the Senate, the loss of two GOP members -- as long as Democrats hold their troops together -- would be fatal to a bill.

The Republican attitude that Democrats are "irrelevant" is bad for Democrats because it means that half of the electorate's voices are being ignored. But it's bad for Republicans, too. Remember how Bush embraced Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and touted his friendship with Bob Bullock, the Democratic legislative leader in Texas, when he first came into office? Remember how Bush easily got his No Child Left Behind Act passed with bipartisan support?

But ever since Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) left the GOP in 2001 and handed Democrats control of the chamber for 18 months, Bush has taken a "my way or the highway" approach that has both shut out Democrats legislatively and stoked their anger about the way Republicans are running Washington. (For evidence of this anger, look no farther than the success of Howard Dean's presidential campaign.)

Republicans claim that by snubbing Democrats, they're remaking the legislative process -- one that's inherently messy -- into a well-oiled machine. But they're not even able to do that. Congress is already three weeks late in passing bills to fund the government for the new fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. The Hill's target adjournment date is now Nov. 7, according to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), but even that's optimistic. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday, the fact that Republicans missed their Medicare deadline is "not surprising, considering that House Democrats have not been consulted or included in the House-Senate negotiations."

House Democrats can't do much about being excluded besides complaining, voting against GOP bills and trying to regain control of the chamber in 2004. In the Senate, Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is talking about holding up the appointment of future conference committee members as a way to get the GOP's attention, according to The Washington Post's Helen Dewar. If Daschle makes good on his threat, that surely won't burnish Republicans' self-image as efficient managers of the legislative process.

Still, it would be Pollyannaish to believe that Republicans will realize how shortsighted their approach is in the next year. And that makes the Democratic argument for why we need a new team in Washington even stronger. After all, Karl Rove and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) are not exactly men given to self-doubt. Rove's arrogance has proven costly before: Bush may have lost the popular vote in 2000 in part because, sitting on a slim lead in the polls, he relaxed the weekend before the election instead of campaigning. One of these days Republicans will find themselves a few votes short of a victory on Capitol Hill, too.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.