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Democrats vow no pass for Obama, after it cost Bush and GOP

WASHINGTON — For most of President Bush's tenure, he enjoyed a Republican-led Congress content to play the role of overly lenient parent: lots of freedom, and few questions about his performance, his friends, or what he was up to.

The arrangement made for little conflict and a pliant Congress that seemed to exist mostly to advance the president's agenda. And in the end, it didn't do either side any favors.

Now, ebullient Democrats are about to control both the Congress and the White House for the first time since 1994.

Although Democratic leaders in the House and Senate pledge to keep President-elect Obama in check and give him the scrutiny the Constitution demands, they undoubtedly will be tempted to look the other way, or at least not look too deep.

But falling to those temptations could be perilous. If recent history is any guide, failing to learn from Republican mistakes may cost congressional Democrats at election time, and allow small problems within the Obama administration to fester, possibly hurting his prospects in 2012, too.

"Avoiding a few embarrassing subcommittee hearings means that they're going to have some really embarrassing full committee hearings," said Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, the third-ranking House Republican for much of Bush's second term. "We had to learn that lesson the hard way."

• • •

In 2003, the new Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee cut the word "oversight" from the committee's title.

It was a sign of things to come.

Consider this: During the last half of the Clinton administration, when the Republicans ran Congress, the oversight committee issued more than 1,000 subpoenas to the White House and the Democratic Party.

From 2003 until the Republicans lost control of Congress in late 2006, the committee sent the Bush administration just three: two to the Energy Department regarding nuclear waste storage, and one to the Defense Department related to Hurricane Katrina.

The committee's Republican leaders also rejected Democratic requests to look into a wide range of matters that would later prove politically embarrassing, including the faulty intelligence reports leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the injection of ideology into government scientific reports, the treatment of military detainees abroad, and conflicts of interests among senior officials in Cabinet agencies, particularly the Interior Department.

Nor did the Republicans question the Bush administration's practice of circumventing Congress to soften environmental regulations or change rules regarding domestic spying.

"We abdicated a great deal of our oversight responsibility during most of the Bush administration," said former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who retired last week. "A lot of things that got off-track during the last eight years was a direct result of that — the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, torture, Iraq, you name it."

Many Republicans on Capitol Hill now acknowledge that their unwillingness to ask questions — even as the public turned against the president's policies — helped cost them control of Congress in 2006 and contributed to deeper losses this past November.

"When you have an unpopular president and the Congress isn't picking many fights or calling them out on many things, you're going to be unpopular as well," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a vocal reformer who was named to the House oversight committee last week.

"I think people understand the balance of power fairly well and they expect the Congress to show some independence. And we didn't show enough."

• • •

Democrats insist they've learned from the Republicans' mistakes, and already congressional leaders have sent some modest signals that Obama should not expect a free pass.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he will work with Obama, not for Obama, and he has said the incoming vice president, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., will not be welcome at the Democrats' weekly policy luncheons, the way Vice President Dick Cheney was a regular participant in weekly Republican meetings.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., incoming chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, chided Obama last week for choosing Leon Panetta, President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, to head the CIA without first talking with her.

Some Democrats already are taking issue with Obama's plans to cut taxes for businesses and the middle class as part of his $800-billion economic stimulus package, and congressional leaders have pledged close scrutiny of how the administration spends the money.

"The realization that Congress was entirely passive prior to the 2006 election is something that all Democrats have internalized," said Ross K. Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University.

Democratic lawmakers and aides acknowledge that Obama's popularity virtually ensures a long, passionate honeymoon, and that it may be politically unpalatable, at times, to criticize him or his administration. "It is a concern," said Rep. Allen Boyd, a North Florida Democrat.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., the new chairman of the House oversight committee, promised he would do his best. "The country wants President Obama to succeed," he said. "And to succeed, he needs people telling him which programs are working, and which programs are not."

Wes Allison can be reached at or (202) 463-0577.

Democrats vow no pass for Obama, after it cost Bush and GOP 01/10/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 11:02pm]
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