POLITICS

Why Some Democrats Are Longing For The Bush Years

02/18/2015 01:31 pm ET | Updated Feb 24, 2015
Ronald Martinez via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- On May 2, 2007, President George W. Bush issued only the second veto of his presidency, sending back to Congress a bill that would have appropriated $124 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan War while including a deadline for withdrawal from the former. In July, Senate Democrats took a whack again, this time introducing a bill that would have imposed a 120-day deadline for the start of combat troop withdrawals. The bill couldn't clear a filibuster. They pushed additional measures to revoke the initial war authorization, amendments to cut off funding by early 2008, and more bills to begin an expedited timeline for withdrawal.

None of it became law. Along the way, the party made concessions. They passed supplemental bills to keep military operations going, even as Congress continued to debate the war. And by the end of the year Democrats caved entirely, passing a budget bill that included funding for Iraq.

Eight years later, those war debates are being revisited, not so much because America's withdrawal from Iraq has come under scrutiny in light of the rise of the Islamic State, but because those debates provide a contrast for how an opposition Congress interacts with the president. Unlike today's Republicans, Democrats argue, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) knew that some cliffs were too important to send one's party over.

"No matter how much he might not have agreed with the execution of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, he wasn't going to cut off funding and leave troops out on the field without armor. That wasn't going to happen. And there were people on the left that couldn't get that point," said Rodell Mollineau, Reid's former staff director, during a recent episode of The Huffington Post's "Drinking and Talking."

Nostalgia for the debates of the later Bush years may seem odd to those who lived through them. The politics of 2007 and 2008 were defined by bitter exchanges over the war, investigations into White House misconduct, and a chaotic response to a historic market collapse.

"Obviously it was rough," Tony Fratto, a former Bush spokesman, told HuffPost a few months back. "We weren't just dealing with difficulty in getting legislation done that we wanted, but [Democrats] had also begun lots of investigations and oversight that we knew was coming and that would be on their agenda."

But was that smoother than the current political landscape? Democrats say they have a case to make. Not even two months into the new Congress, lawmakers seem less intimidated by policy cliffs -- expiration dates for tax cuts, looming budget cutoffs, or court cases that could invalidate laws -- and more invested in gaming out how best to manage the fallout.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Sunday that he is "certainly" ready to see funding for the Department of Homeland Security expire, as it is scheduled to do at the end of this month, rather than budge on his insistence that any funding bill end the president's executive actions on immigration. The president's veto threats outnumber the actual pieces legislation sent to him for his signature one way or the other. Transportation advocates have publicly encouraged lawmakers to find a solution to a soon-to-expire highway trust fund, but privately they fret no resolution will be reached. Republicans have set the stage for a cut in Social Security Disability insurance that could happen absent an agreement on reforms to that program. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is the lone Republican to say he would vote for Loretta Lynch as attorney general, even though his entire caucus wants to see an end to the tenure of the man she would replace.

It's not quite mutually assured self-destruction, since each party believes the other will eventually cave. And certainly there is the chance that lawmakers' bravado will fade as deadlines near. There also have been some areas of progress. While Lynch's nomination lingers, Ash Carter has been confirmed as the next secretary of defense, and an early push to pass additional sanctions against Iran has seemingly been put on pause at the president's request.

But the current mood suggests that, in the final stretch of the Obama era, both parties are invested in what best can be described as strategic inaction. And although Republicans may argue that the stakes of any single issue don't rise to the level of, say, Iraq combat operations, lives are still at risk.

Just weeks before the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments challenging the legality of subsidies issued by federally run health insurance exchanges, Republicans have made it clear that they don't intend to lift a finger to fix the law should those subsidies be invalidated.

"No," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) last week when asked if Republicans had a contingency plan for a court decision that works within the confines of Obamacare. "[T]he idea is not to make Obamacare work better or to actually authorize Obamacare. The idea is to show what our alternative to Obamacare looks like in these states."

At a breakfast briefing last week with reporters, one prominent Republican House member was even more unequivocal about the potential loss of subsidies. "[People] were never entitled to them," said the member, who spoke candidly with reporters on condition of anonymity.

Asked if he'd amend the language in Obamacare's controversial clause in exchange for other Republican priorities, the member didn't skip a beat. "It's not a question of compromise," he said. "Obamacare has failed ... If the president and the Congress that passed this on a partisan-only basis did it wrong, then they hoist themselves on their own petard."

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