WASHINGTON — Democrats promised voters a lot in exchange for winning back the majority in Congress this year: a change of course in Iraq, a return to old-school bipartisanship and a broad domestic agenda.
Seven months later, however, as lawmakers prepare to return to their home states for their first major break — the annual August recess — the results are mixed.
President Bush vetoed the only out-of-Iraq legislation that the Democrats could get through both chambers.
At the same time, Democrats have forced serious discussions about how and when to begin withdrawing U.S. combat troops, and have helped drive public opinion their way. Today more Republican lawmakers are publicly questioning the president's approach.
"I would make the case they have begun the process of changing the debate," said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, an outspoken Republican war critic.
But partisan tensions are still running high.
The Senate is heading toward a record number of filibuster threats that block Democratic legislation. Republicans booed, jeered and stormed off the floor of the House of Representatives late Thursday night and spent much of Friday in protest, accusing Democrats of cheating to quash a vote.
Democrats have passed only a handful of their domestic priorities. They raised the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade, and imposed new ethics restrictions on lawmakers. But most of their priorities have stalled, and some appear dead.
Perhaps their most consistent accomplishment has been aggressive oversight of the Bush administration. By Republicans' count, Democrats have initiated 300 investigations, requiring executive branch officials to spend more than 85,000 hours responding to congressional requests.
Meanwhile, many voters who longed for a change last year now appear disgusted with Congress. Several recent national polls have put Congress' job rating in the mid-20s, and 51 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of Congress in a Pew Research Center poll released this week. That's worse than the 46 percent unfavorable rating that Congress scored last fall, when Republicans were still in control.
Democrats can take some comfort from polls showing that it's even worse for Republicans. Last month 31 percent of Americans thought Democrats in Congress were doing an excellent or good job, but only 21 percent thought Republicans were, according to a Harris poll.
"If you really, honestly look at the numbers, people are favoring Democrats over Republicans," said the House Democratic Whip, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina.
Democrats aimed higher than that back in January, when Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., became the first female speaker of the House and everyone promised to be fair and nice to each other.
But soon House Democrats were doing to Republicans what Republicans had done to them: cutting them out of deal-making, limiting debate, forcing through votes even if parliamentary rules had to be bent.
With summertime came scandals for both parties. Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., was indicted on corruption charges. The FBI searched the home of Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in another corruption probe. The name of Sen. David Vitter, R-La., turned up on the phone list of a high-profile alleged prostitution ring. He apologized publicly.
Democrats blame Republicans for the public's contempt for Congress, saying that the minority party obstructed Democrats from acting.
"We've damn sure tried, haven't we?" said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "We've kept our foot to the throttle. We're satisfied that the American people know how hard we've worked with such limited tools."
Republicans counter that the Democrats are more interested in scoring points with their base supporters than in getting things done.
"It's been a very poisonous atmosphere," said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss. "The Democrats have tried to ram things through the Senate, and you can't do that. The Senate doesn't work that way.
"They made a lot of promises on the war which they were wrong about, and they have not been able to get it done. And they're not going to get it done."
Democrats need 60 votes to shut off debate and move to a final vote, but they control the Senate by only 51-49. With one Democrat, Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, out recovering from brain surgery, and one of the two independents who caucus with Democrats, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, voting with Republicans on war issues, Reid said, they have even less than a majority.
"It's 50-49, and we're the 49."
That empowers Republicans to block final Senate votes on anything they can close ranks behind.
With her 231-202 majority in the House, Pelosi can have her way so long as she keeps her own troops in line. But that's required appeasing the liberals by considering legislation that has no prospect of passing in the more conservative Senate.
Meanwhile, hundreds of oversight hearings have forced the administration to answer in areas from politicization of science to abuses in war contracting.
But the most high-profile investigations — into the administration's firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year who had enemies among powerful Republicans — have stalled, as Bush has asserted executive privilege to keep his top aides from testifying. Without a compromise, Democrats may have to challenge the White House in court.
Republicans say they were more effective when they ran Congress.
"When you compare when we took over the Congress back in 1995, we actually accomplished a tremendous amount in the Contract with America, got it actually signed into law — the vast majority. What they have done this year is they've gotten almost nothing done, nothing signed into law from the president. It is time for us to start working together for the benefit of the American people, and that is the message," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.
Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, said he thought that the Democrats had been more successful than early results suggested.
"They've changed the debate on the war," he said. "It's only been a few months, and Congress usually takes a lot of time to do anything. It's rare when you have dramatic change in Congress over the course of a few months."
However, Zelizer added: "The Democrats are reaching the point where they're going to have to have some legislative product" to show voters heading into the 2008 elections.
"On Iraq, even if they're not obtaining withdrawal legislation, in September they're going to have to come back with some sort of aggressive benchmark bill or something to show they're moving the war toward a faster conclusion. And I think they do need some other domestic legislation."
CONGRESS' RECORD THIS YEAR:
Laws passed, actions accomplished:
Poised to pass:
Blocked, vetoed or uncertain: