With less than a week to go until the 2006 elections, the campaign trail is as muddy as ever. Conservatives claim a Democrat-controlled Congress would cut and run in Iraq, raise taxes at home, and engage in partisan payback across the board. Liberals warn of Rove-ian schemes and election-day dirty tricks. And campaign ads from both sides have alleged everything from racism and corruption to womanizing and smutty writing. Yet when the votes have been counted, and a new Congress convenes in January, there's the very real chance that Washington might actually accomplish something.
Why such optimism? After all, the majority party in the House -- regardless of whether Democrats take control or Republicans cling to power -- will likely have the slimmest margin that chamber has seen since 1930. A Senate majority stronger than 52-48 for either party seems all but impossible. Factor in the filibuster and a president not known for compromise, and this seems like a recipe for two more years of gridlock, right?
Perhaps, but consider:
- All signs point toward Democrats picking up the 15 seats needed to take the House and elevate liberal California Rep. Nancy Pelosi to Speaker, but roughly a dozen of the newly elected representatives are expected to be "Blue Dog Democrats." That would grow this conservative caucus to nearly 50 members, and give it the clout to broker deals with Republicans and Democrats alike.
- The Senate will almost certainly have a new majority leader -- either Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky or Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada -- who is both able and willing to work with allies across the aisle in a way that current Leader Bill Frist has rarely tried. High-profile senators with presidential ambitions -- John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, among others -- will bring additional pressure to bear, anxious to show they can get things done for the country.
- Most importantly, the public remains disgusted. One of the few things on which Democratic and Republican voters agree is that the 109th Congress either ignored or fell short on virtually every important issue it faced. Nothing interests legislators like self-preservation, and 25 percent approval ratings don't bode well for any incumbent come 2008.
And there are plenty of promising areas for truly bipartisan legislation. A raise in the minimum wage, which Democrats say is a top priority and many Republicans would like to see paired with help for small businesses, would be a good place to start. Immigration reform that goes beyond just a fence could make it to the president's desk. Restoring some of the budget rules and procedures that expired in the surplus years of the late 1990s has the support of Democratic and Republican deficit hawks alike.
Tax policy would be tricky, but there are powerful members in both parties who sincerely want to improve the system -- and who know that the Alternative Minimum Tax's steady creep into middle-class returns won't go away on its own. And while Republicans are skeptical of Democratic calls to slash the interest rate on student loans, few politicians would argue that higher education costs are not a major concern. Congress could embrace President Bush's proposal to reduce subsidies for student loan providers, and use that money to provide billions in additional aid to students themselves.
None of this is guaranteed, of course. A House still run by Speaker Dennis Hastert, with his "majority of the majority" rule for bringing legislation to the floor, would mean more of the same. A Speaker Pelosi, on the other hand, might ignore her Blue Dog members and push an aggressively liberal agenda, rallying the Democratic base but delivering little in the way of results. The debate over what to do in Iraq could prove so polarizing that compromise on domestic issues simply isn't possible. And as David Broder noted in his Oct. 29 column, the president has yet to show much interest in working with a Congress that doesn't simply implement his agenda.
Yet for all that, there's reason to be hopeful. Hopeful that Democratic leaders, should they win, know better than to claim a mandate that voters surely didn't intend. Hopeful that Bush, looking toward his legacy, will show some of those "uniter" skills he boasted of as Texas governor. And hopeful that legislators across the spectrum will see that it's in their interest to actually legislate, not just game out votes that will prove useful in 2008 campaign ads.
The focus will turn to 2008 and partisan advantages soon enough, but the first months of 2007 could be truly productive. The American people deserve it. And if pre-election polls are to be believed, they're about to demand it.