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Dems Blinked

Message Jim Cullen
George W. Bush played “chicken” with the troops in Iraq and Congressional Democratic leaders blinked.
The Democrats may have lacked the votes to override a presidential veto of the supplemental appropriations bill funding the Iraq war, but Bush also lacked the votes to get the “clean” appropriation he demanded.
We agreed with presidential candidate John Edwards that a “take it or leave it” appropriation was the preferable course for the Dems to take, but we can’t say we were surprised at the interim resolution that Congress approved before they left for the Memorial Day recess. Democratic leaders chose a cautious approach that funds the war through September but imposes benchmarks on the Iraq government to shape up by then.
The bill has some good points. In addition to $100 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it provides $6.4 billion for Gulf Coast hurricane recovery; $3 billion in emergency aid to farmers; $3 billion for conversion of closed military bases; $1 billion for drought and natural disaster relief; and $1 billion for improvements to mass transit and port security. Money also went for emergency road repairs, children’s health care, state HIV programs, mine safety research, youth violence prevention and pandemic flu protection.
The bill also increased the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade. The minimum wage increases from $5.15 to $5.85 on July 24, then goes up to $7.25 an hour in four more steps over two years. Yet even the longtime champion of the long-overdue increase, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), ended up voting against the bill.
It was scant consolation for those who hoped to shut down the war. But if Congress had followed our counsel, the Democrats undoubtedly would have been attacked for failing to support the troops. A CBS/New York Times poll conducted May 18-23, as the White House was finishing negotiations with congressional leaders, found that a huge majority disapproved of the war. However, only 13% supported cutting off the war funding, while 69% supported the funding with benchmarks. An ABC/Washington Post poll released June 5 found that 55% want withdrawal, but only 15% want “immediate” withdrawal. Those numbers don’t encourage heroic action, particularly when you consider that conservatives control all the TV networks, most of talk radio and most newspapers.
But since then polls have shown Congress has lost much of the confidence of progressive Democrats and independents. In April the Democrats held a 24-point lead over Bush as the stronger leadership force in Washington, according to the ABC/Post poll. By late May that had collapsed to a dead heat. The Democrats’ overall job approval rating also dropped, from a 54% majority to 44% — with the decline occurring almost exclusively among strong opponents of the Iraq War. Their only solace is that Bush’s job approval is even lower, at 35%, while Republicans in Congress are at 36%.
How does Congress restore that confidence? Not by ratifying trade bills negotiated by the Bush administration.
Progressive Democrats have been trying to make sense of the trade deal that House leaders struck with the White House. The deal calls for our trading partners to recognize labor and environmental standards, but it appears that these “standards” will not be written into the actual texts of the agreements. Instead they will be part of side agreements or “letters of understanding” that are virtually unenforceable.
Democrats are in charge in Congress in large part because 37 “fair-trade” Democrats were elected last November, defeating “free-trade” Republicans. The Chicago Tribune reported June 2 that “first-term Democrats are leading a vocal charge against their own leadership over several proposed international trade deals.” Most Democrats “remain largely skeptical” of proposed South Korea and Colombia trade pacts, which were part of the secret deal. But “party leaders — including Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the caucus chairman, who helped shepherd NAFTA to approval when he worked for President Clinton — announced last month they would move ahead.” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said of the secret deal: “It’s not a good step forward, it’s good lip service.”
Democrats also are alarmed that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has refused to commit that she will advance trade bills only when they are backed by a majority of the party’s caucus.
“Fast track” trade authority, which limits the ability of Congress to examine trade agreements, expires in July. Congress should not renew it and should give careful examination to any trade deal presented by the Bush administration, which has shown it cannot be trusted to negotiate in good faith.
Immigration Impasse: No Great Loss
If the immigration reform bill can’t survive an amendment to “sunset” the guest worker program, it deserves to die. The same goes for other improvements needed to make the bill more worker-friendly.
One of the contentious provisions in S.1348 was a temporary-worker program that would allow employers to import up to 400,000 migrants a year to compete with American workers for jobs. First Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) passed an amendment limiting the “guest worker” program to 200,000 a year. Then Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who had failed in an earlier attempt to strike the guest worker program entirely, threw a wrench in the works when he managed to pass an amendment to put a five-year time limit on the program.
Republicans lined up with dozens of amendments, many of them “poison pills” designed to make the bill unpassable. When the Senate failed to limit debate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the bill from consideration.
Unions don’t like the guest worker program, which undercuts wages. Businesses want the guest worker program because they don’t want to pay the wages required to attract American citizens. Republicans don’t want Latino immigrants to get citizenship any time soon, since they tend to support Dems once they get the vote. Latino groups complain the visa provisions would create a “morass of confusing, burdensome and expensive triggers, eligibility requirements and costs [that] would preclude the vast majority of undocumented persons from applying ...”
President Bush was embarrassed when only 10 of the 48 Republican senators supported cloture to allow the bill to proceed. He met with Republican senators on June 12 in an attempt to dismantle the GOP blockade against the bill.
With an unemployment rate of only 4.5% in May, the US needs the estimated 10 million undocumented workers who are currently in this country — but American workers need to know that immigrants will not be used to undercut the value of their labor. The best way to provide that assurance is to give them permanent residency papers and let them continue to stay in this country as long as they keep out of trouble.
People who followed the rules in getting their green cards should go to the head of the line for citizenship, of course, but those who have been here a year or more should get their chance to live the American Dream as well, knowing that they can complain about violations of wage and hour laws, join unions, buy houses and actually get credit for the taxes that are deducted from their paychecks.
To control future immigration, we need to make it impractical for businesses to hire undocumented workers. Let’s figure out a way without taking it out on the workers.
(From The Progressive Populist)
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Jim Cullen is editor of The Progressive Populist, a twice-monthly journal of politics, economics and public affairs published from the Heartland.
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