Latching onto Republican talking point, media report "do-nothing" Congress, not GOP obstruction

››› ››› KATHLEEN HENEHAN

Several media outlets have reported recent claims by Senate Republicans, President Bush, and members of his administration that Democrats are currently presiding, or may soon preside, over a "do-nothing Congress" without challenging the claim in any way. These claims are apparently part of a strategy laid out in a "talking-points memorandum" reportedly "circulat[ed]" by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) that advises Republicans to attack congressional Democrats for their supposed lack of legislative accomplishments. In fact, Republicans have blocked Senate action at an unprecedented rate -- apparently putting into action a strategy that Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-MS) described as "obstructionist."

A July 24 Washington Times article reported that Kyl was "meeting with members" of the Senate Republican Conference "yesterday and today to disseminate a message critical of Democrats for endlessly debating the Iraq war, stalling judicial nominations and squandering time on at least 300 investigations of the Bush administration." The article also reported that Kyl had "circulat[ed]" a talking-points memo to Republicans that "criticize[d]" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) "for letting legislative priorities languish." Kyl, Lott, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) reinforced this message during an afternoon press conference (subscription required) on July 24 in which they criticized Democrats by asserting that "we [Congress] are literally doing nothing," in Cornyn's words.

But according to a July 20 McClatchy Newspapers article, "This year Senate Republicans are threatening filibusters to block more legislation than ever before," as Media Matters for America documented. These actions are consistent with the acknowledgement by Lott in an April 18 Roll Call article (subscription required) that the GOP is employing an "obstructionist" strategy in the Senate: "The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail. ... For [former Senate Democratic Leader Tom] Daschle (S.D.), it failed. For [then-Senate Minority Leader Harry] Reid, it succeeded, and so far it's working for us." Further, a July 26 Washington Post article quoted Republican Rep. Ray LaHood (IL) praising Democrats' recent legislative accomplishments and bipartisanship. According to the article, LaHood stated: "The first quarter was not so good, and that's why they're not looking so good in the polls, but this quarter is looking very good for them. They can send their members home crowing about their accomplishments, and they've done it in a bipartisan way, which is exactly what they promised to do." Nevertheless, various media outlets duly repeated this message without challenge over the next several days:

  • During the July 26 edition of MSNBC Live, congressional correspondent Mike Viqueira reported on the Senate Judiciary Committee's decision to subpoena White House senior adviser Karl Rove. Viqueira stated that Democrats have "some major legislation pending," but he repeated without challenge the Republican claim that the Democratic Congress is "not getting the job done for the American people":

VIQUEIRA: Well, the Republican line on this, including just now from the White House and the spokesman there [press secretary] Tony Snow, has been consistent over the last few weeks and that is simply this: The Democratic Congress is so interested in investigating the White House and the administration that they are not getting the job done for the American people. That they have gotten very few things passed in this Congress, outside of a minimum wage. In fairness, we have to say there is some, there are some major legislation pending over the course of next eight days before the four-week congressional recess. But Tony Snow says that this Congress is failing to tackle the important issues, and they are more interested in getting headlines than passing legislation.

  • During the July 25 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, correspondent Jack Cafferty asserted that the 110th Congress "ha[s] accomplished next to nothing":

CAFFERTY: The Democrats have been in control of Congress for seven months now, speaking of being in control of your own demise. What do they have to show for it? A hike in the minimum wage. That's about it. And wouldn't you know they went out yesterday, pat themselves on the back, celebrating the first minimum wage increase in a decade with a rally across from the Capitol. I mean, is that really necessary?

It's nice they increased the minimum wage, but, I mean, this is kind of overdoing it.

Now, there's a piece in The New York Times that suggests that they're going to have to get a lot more than that done in order to avoid the do-nothing label that they stuck on the Republican Congress that preceded them. So far, if there was a race for worthless, the 109th and 110th Congresses would be dead even.

Despite the fact that they have accomplished next to nothing, in a week and a half, they're going on vacation for a whole month, just like the Iraqi parliament plans to do.

To try to make us believe that they're something they're not in the meantime, the Democrats will now race around during the last few days before their break trying to look busy, busy with things they have been promising to do since the midterm elections almost a year ago, things like lobbying reform and implementing some recommendations of the 9-11 Commission.

So, here's the question: What do Democrats in Congress need to accomplish in order to avoid a do-nothing label?

  • During the "Fox News All-Stars" segment of the July 24 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer stated that Republicans "have a chance [in the 2008 elections] if they argue that the Democrats have been in charge, and they are the do-nothing Congress." Krauthammer went on to attack congressional Democrats for their handling of investigations and the war in Iraq. He stated that Democrats have conducted "[l]ots of hearings on the CIA leak, on the NSA eavesdropping program" "without any success" and later argued that Congress "hasn't had the courage" to end the war in Iraq.
  • A July 27 Washington Post article headlined "President Criticizes Congressional Democrats" reported that the Bush administration is also criticizing Democrats in a manner similar to that of Kyl:

In recent weeks, members of Bush's administration have been increasingly vocal in criticizing Congress for enacting little legislation while aggressively pursuing investigations of the administration, a critique White House strategists hope will rally supporters and counter the impact of the probes.

The article included a quote from Snow, who claimed: "What you have right now is partisanship on Capitol Hill that quite often boils down to insults, insinuations, inquisitions and investigations, rather than pursuing the normal business of trying to pass major pieces of legislation, such as appropriations bills." The article also quoted White House communications director Kevin Sullivan and Republican strategist Vin Weber criticizing congressional Democrats, but it did not mention the obstruction by Republicans in context and, indeed, included only a one-line rebuttal from Reid in response. The article also did not include LaHood's comments praising Democrats, which appeared in the Post the previous day.

Additionally, both a New York Times article and a report by Fox News congressional correspondent Major Garrett treated Democrats' response that Republicans were blocking legislation as a mere accusation without noting Lott's quote or the findings of the McClatchy Newspapers article:

  • On July 25, The New York Times published an article headlined "Democrats Pushing to Avoid a 'Do-Nothing' Label," which stated that congressional Democrats "will have to accomplish considerably more to avoid the sort of do-nothing labels they hung on Republicans not too long ago." The article went on to add: "Mr. Kyl did offer an apology for calling this a do-nothing Congress, saying that because Democrats had sent Mr. Bush legislation naming 20 postal facilities, it should be called the post-office Congress." The article also quoted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) saying, "They've wasted the first seven months by being excessively partisan and creating unnecessary, in my view, disputes with a pretty robust minority of 49." The article added that "Democrats accuse Mr. McConnell and Congressional Republicans of deliberately trying to block the majority's initiatives," but it did not assess the merits of the Democrats' "accus[ation]."
  • Garrett not only treated Democrats' statements that Republicans were obstructing legislation as a mere argument, he reported that this argument has "largely fail[ed]." During the July 24 edition of Special Report, Garrett reported that Democrats celebrated the July 24 minimum-wage increase and added: "Republicans say Democrats have precious little to celebrate." He then aired a clip of McConnell attacking Democrats for two out of the three issues that Kyl reportedly discussed with members of the Senate Republican Conference on July 23 and 24. McConnell stated: "We have had excessive Iraq votes, excessive investigations, and not much legislating." Garrett went on to report:

Democrats have complained all year that Republicans keep blocking their attempts to pass domestic legislation. Having seen that argument largely fail, Democrats are now madly trying to pass bills before Congress leaves next week for a month-long break.

Garrett neither explained the basis for his assertion that Democrats' argument that "Republicans keep blocking their attempts to pass domestic legislation" has "largely fail[ed]" nor noted the evidence that Republicans are obstructing at an unprecedented rate.

From the July 24 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

GARRETT: Democrats and big labor held a rally to celebrate themselves and today's increase in the federal minimum wage, the one and only campaign promise so far fulfilled on this the 202nd day of the 110th Congress.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): This is the day that signals change, because people who went to work this morning, who went to work every day to provide for their families, today will have their work rewarded more fully.

GARRETT: The minimum wage rises today from $5.15 an hour to $5.85 an hour. It will rise again to $6.55 an hour a year from today and once more to $7.25 an hour two years from today. Democrats passed the bill two months ago, but felt they needed to cheer its enactment to paper over record low approval ratings and to rally a base demoralized by lack of progress in bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq.

On that point, Democrats sought credit for round upon round of Iraq war hearings.

REID: We have had 100 hearings on Iraq and we are going to have 100 more and we are proud of it. That's in preparation for us to get our valiant troops to come home.

GARRETT: But even the accomplishment of raising the minimum wage came with a price. Democrats tucked the minimum wage increase into a bill funding President Bush's troop surge to soften the blow of giving up on a troop withdrawal timeline Democrats had originally demanded.

Republicans say Democrats have precious little to celebrate.

McCONNELL: We had excessive Iraq votes, excessive investigations, and not much legislating.

HOUSE MINORITY LEADER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): The Democrats, all year, have broken every promise they made during the election cycle last year. And I think Americans expect the Democrats will work with Republicans to deal with the issues that they care about.

GARRETT: Democrats will now try to address other campaign promises: lowering energy prices, implementing remaining 9-11 Commission recommendations, providing more college tuition assistance.

Democrats have complained all year that Republicans keep blocking their attempts to pass domestic legislation. Having seen that argument largely fail, Democrats are now madly trying to pass bills before Congress leaves next week for a month-long break. But to do that, Democrats have to cut some deals. And that's given Republicans more clout in Congress than at any time since they lost the majority last November. Brit [Hume, host]?

[...]

HUME: So question, what about the Democrats? How well have they done? How badly they have done, or what? Charles?

KRAUTHAMMER: They've done badly. And I think this will give the Republican the one opening they are going to have in 2008. Everything is running against the Republicans, but I think they have a chance if they argue that the Democrats have been in charge, and they are the do-nothing Congress.

Just like Truman in 1948, who had the luck of losing the House and Senate two years earlier, he ran against it, and said these guys have accomplished nothing.

Look, the Democrats have done two things -- hearings, without any success, unlike Watergate, Iran-Contra. You've gotta have a trophy at the end of it. You have to be holding a head and put it on a spike, and they don't have any.

Lots of hearings on the CIA leak, on the NSA eavesdropping program. Lots of hearings on all kinds of stuff -- nothing. And people, the way to frame it is to say, "Is this how you want Congress spending its time and your tax money?"

And, secondly, even on the war, Republicans can say, if you believe that the war ought to end, the Congress has not -- has the power to do it, hasn't had the courage to do it. If you believe the war ought to be won, all that Congress has done is to impede our attempts to actually win.

MORTON M. KONDRACKE (Roll Call executive editor): Yeah, I agree that after both parties said after the 2006 elections, the lesson of this election is that we got to work together, and the public wants us to work together. And I think that -- I think that's true.

They haven't worked together, and they haven't gotten much done. They are going to get a few things done -- they'll get lobbying and ethics reform done before they go home for the August recess. They will probably get an SCHIP [State Children's Health Insurance Program] -- they might get an SCHIP children's health bill pass, which the president is vowing to veto. They did --

HUME: Will that, therefore, not be an accomplishment, or what?

KONDRACKE: Well, it will. I think -- no. I think that works against the Republicans, actually. If the president vetoes children's health after -- after the Congress had approved $400 billion over a five-year period for seniors' prescription drugs, but they won't approve $50 billion for children's health? I think that -- and it's the president veto that blocks it? I think that hurts the Republicans.

FRED BARNES (Weekly Standard executive editor): And it would do what? If there were a bill that -- it didn't have so many horrible things on it -- you know a bill that would go way up 400 percent of poverty.

KONDRACKE: It doesn't.

BARNES: And yet, that's what the bill does. Mort, read the bill and you will see what it does.

KONDRACKE: It doesn't. I've read it.

BARNES: OK, but you got it wrong then.

KONDRACKE: Well, you read it.

HUME: No, you read it.

KONDRACKE: It's a bipartisan --

HUME: Have you read it? I haven't read it. Have you read it?

BARNES: What it would do, it would attract an awful lot of people who are on private insurance just to take a government handout insurance, that's what it would do. And it doesn't apply.

And look, it's the Bush administration's fault on this. They have given all kind of waivers to states, that this SCHIP money for children has gone to adults in many, many states. So the program is not a great program.

Look, judge the Democrats by -- Mort says it's -- they, Republicans and Democrat, have to work together. Democrats are in charge. They said -- in the House, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of them said -- we are going to have six in 2006. They got one, I mean, passed this year, one. That's the minimum wage, and it had to be tacked on to the Iraq Supplemental Bill.

Harry Reid had 10 top items -- one he has achieved, the minimum wage.

Now look, if you're a quarterback, you are supposed to complete 50 percent of your passes to do OK. If you are a baseball player, you need to hit .300 to be doing well. They are way below those averages.

The fact is they just haven't accepted the fact, particularly in the Senate, that Republicans have 49 votes. And look, I think anybody in the Democratic Party would tell you privately, would you rather have Mitch McConnell as your leader in the Senate, or Harry Reid? And they'd all say Mitch McConnell.

From the 4 p.m. ET hour of the July 25 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

CAFFERTY: The Democrats have been in control of Congress for seven months now, speaking of being in control of your own demise. What do they have to show for it? A hike in the minimum wage. That's about it. And wouldn't you know they went out yesterday, pat themselves on the back, celebrating the first minimum wage increase in a decade with a rally across from the Capitol. I mean, is that really necessary?

It's nice they increased the minimum wage, but, I mean, this is kind of overdoing it.

Now, there's a piece in The New York Times that suggests that they're going to have to get a lot more than that done in order to avoid the do-nothing label that they stuck on the Republican Congress that preceded them. So far, if there was a race for worthless, the 109th and 110th Congresses would be dead even.

Despite the fact that they have accomplished next to nothing, in a week and a half, they're going on vacation for a whole month, just like the Iraqi parliament plans to do.

To try to make us believe that they're something they're not in the meantime, the Democrats will now race around during the last few days before their break trying to look busy, busy with things they have been promising to do since the midterm elections almost a year ago, things like lobbying reform and implementing some recommendations of the 9-11 Commission.

So, here's the question: What do Democrats in Congress need to accomplish in order to avoid a do-nothing label? E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

From the 12 p.m. ET hour of MSNBC Live on July 26:

VIQUEIRA: Well, the Republican line on this, including just now from the White House and the spokesman there Tony Snow, has been consistent over the last few weeks and that is simply this: The Democratic Congress is so interested in investigating the White House and the administration that they are not getting the job done for the American people. That they have gotten very few things passed in this Congress, outside of a minimum wage. In fairness, we have to say there is some, there are some major legislation pending over the course of next eight days before the four-week congressional recess. But Tony Snow says that this Congress is failing to tackle the important issues, and they are more interested in getting headlines than passing legislation. Contessa [Brewer, host].

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