First Real Test for Democrats: The Lame Duck Session of Congress

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by Dave Lindorff

Forget all the talk about civility and compromise.

It's clear that President Bush and his aiders and abettors in the Congress are going to do their damndest to cover their tracks over the next few weeks, using their "lame duck" majorities in House and Senate to pass legislation, while they still can, protecting them as much as possible from future investigation and retaliation.

Bush clearly wants a bill granting him retroactive immunity for his crime of violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act--probably the surest path to his impeachment in a growing list of some dozen crimes against law and Constitution. He may push other actions insulating himself and his cohorts from future prosecution too, as he already did just before the election in ramming through a bill immunizing him against prosecution for authorizing torture.

While the Democrats won't have a majority in either branch of Congress until early January, when newly elected Democrats are sworn in and replace some 30 Republican members of the House and six members of the Senate, they have plenty of members already in place to perform a blocking action--particularly in the Senate, where the Democrats can fillibuster to death any bill they want by just keeping 40 of their 45 caucus members together.

Will they do this?

Nancy Pilosi (D-Calif.), the prospective new speaker and current minority leader of the House, so far is not showing much taste for combat. If she doesn't take a stand, though, it will be a massive betrayal of the millions of voters who came out and backed Democrats, often for the first time in their lives, because they want a real opposition.

The truth is, Pelosi probably shouldn't have a hard time rounding up the 15 or so Republicans she'll need to block any FISA-immunity bill. There are some libertarian Republicans in the House who have been at least as outraged at Bush's warrantless spying on Americans as the most liberal Democrats.

But Pelosi and the Democrats can't continue to act like the out-of-power wimps that they have been for the past six years or more. They shamelessly sat on the sidelines during the debate over the truly dreadful military tribunals bill, allowing Republican critics to do all the heavy lifting. As a result of their calculating cowardice, that the bill passed into law, ending habeas corpus--the right to have a case go before a judge--for the first time since the 13th Century, and making the U.S. a pariah nation that no longer honors the Geneva Conventions.

Democrats also sat on their hands as Congress passed legislation making it easier for the president to declare martial law--an incredible act of betrayal against the people and the Constitution.

The Democratic Party leaders' behavior during the campaign, in which they ducked every important issue, particularly those involving the war and civil liberties, was disgraceful, even if it had at least a veneer of justification (the leadership mistakenly believed that it would do better in the election by not offering Republicans a target). But now Democrats can no longer sit on the sidelines, and no longer have the excuse of being in the line of fire. They are on offense now, and they need to start fighting as a ruling party, even before they take over the gavels in the House and Senate. For the next two months it will have to be full-scale, active obstruction.

After that, maybe they'll realize--from the cheering--how badly the American public wants a fighting opposition. Then maybe they'll move into active opposition after they take over control of the two houses of Congress in January. Maybe Rep. Pelosi will realize over the course of the next few weeks' battles, that American voters were not asking on Nov. 7 for more civility in Washington; they were demanding a real opposition. Maybe she'll realize Americans across the country were voting for a new Congress that would "take out the trash."

Or not.

In which case the party of Roosevelt, and its too cautious leadership, will richly deserve history's dustbin themselves. 

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