Mixed bag for state's Democrats
Democrats in Washington state's congressional delegation had a to-do list that included fixing the underfunded national park system, designating more...
Seattle Times Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — The night of Nov. 7, 2006, Norm Dicks was bubbling as much as the champagne at Maria Cantwell's victory party.
Buoyed by the Democrats' takeover in the House and their surprise win in the Senate, Rep. Dicks, D-Bremerton, joined other Democrats at Sen. Cantwell's re-election celebration at the Seattle Sheraton.
"It's a new world!" Dicks shouted that night. "We're gonna turn the ship around."
Democrats in Washington state's congressional delegation had a to-do list that included fixing the underfunded national park system, designating more wilderness, expanding health care and permanently implementing the state sales-tax deduction.
And, of course, they would join other Democrats to end the Iraq war.
The delegation scored victories for veterans care, transportation and parks, among other things. And Democrats succeeded in raising the federal minimum wage and boosting fuel-economy standards for vehicles in the coming years.
But their optimism of late last year became buried beneath an avalanche of stories about how Republicans — despite being in the minority and having an unpopular president and an unpopular war — were able to frustrate much of the Democrats' agenda.
The Democrats blamed Republicans, the president, and then one another for folding too quickly in the face of threatened filibusters and presidential vetoes.
In no particular order, here are issues the state's Democrats vowed to pursue after the party won control of Congress a year ago, and where they stand now.
Dicks went into the session as the new chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, armed with bipartisan support for a new spending bill.
In June, the House passed his bill, which included money for national parks, the Forest Service, cleanup of Puget Sound, global-warming research and wildlife programs.
"He did a lot of legwork to get key Republican support," said Robert Dewey, vice president for government relations at Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group.
With the GOP on board, Dicks thought his package would be one of the 11 spending bills that the Senate would quickly take up after the August recess. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid waited, frustrating Dicks.
With just days to go before the end-of-year recess, Dicks pushed most of his Interior proposals into an omnibus spending bill that would fund all the agencies except Defense.
Democrats combined several appropriations bills into the catch-all bill after President Bush threatened to veto some of the individual spending proposals. The omnibus bill passed Wednesday.
"It's finally starting to feel like Christmas," Dicks said.
But other environmental issues lost to traditional opposition. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, proposed an amendment to end the importation of polar-bear body parts from Canada as hunting trophies.
It lost 242-188, thanks to a massive charge by the Safari Club sporting group and the National Rifle Association.
"This is all for a fairly wealthy group of individuals who go to Canada to shoot these animals," a frustrated Inslee said.
Meantime, where was Wild Sky?
The bill to create the Wild Sky Wilderness Area in Snohomish County was supposed to be "the no-brainer," said Mark Lawler of the Cascades chapter of the Sierra Club. Bush offered to sign it three years ago, and key opponent Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., lost his seat in November.
The bill won unanimous approval in the House in April, propelled by Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens. But it hit a roadblock in Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has bottled up more than a dozen bills on the grounds that their cost must be offset by other budget cuts.
Democratic supporters vowed to bring it up again in January.
Houston vs. Seattle. The fossil-fuel industry vs. alternative energy. That's how Cantwell sees the two sides in the battle over a new energy policy.
The division became obvious to Cantwell as she and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, debated the energy bill on the Senate floor earlier this month.
"Oh my gosh, I thought, this couldn't be any more clear — the contrast between that world and whether you are going to keep subsidizing it, or whether you're going to move ahead," Cantwell said.
She won a provision to criminalize energy-market manipulation and give the Federal Trade Commission the power to investigate such allegations.
But under the energy bill that passed Congress on Tuesday, oil and gas companies will keep $13.5 billion in subsidies, which Cantwell and several other Democrats in the delegation opposed.
Inslee, who has preached the value of plug-in electric hybrid cars and promised salvation from global warming with renewable fuel sources, introduced 13 energy-related bills or amendments this year.
He squeezed six of seven proposed amendments into the energy bill, including research money for wave and tidal energy and a mandate for power-saving computers in federal offices.
But on one day, in his energy-issue frenzy, he accidentally voted against an amendment that would make the federal government use energy-saving light bulbs. It passed anyway, 404-16; he later apologized for his mistake.
A year ago, Jim McDermott, eyeing a chairmanship on one of the subcommittees of Ways and Means, predicted the Democrats would quickly undo the provision of the 2003 Medicare bill that prevents the federal government from negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.
"Medicare is the low-hanging fruit," the Seattle Democrat said.
Apparently not low enough. The House passed that change overwhelmingly in January. It won 55-42 in the Senate, but Democrats needed 60 votes to avoid a filibuster.
And McDermott's proposal for national health care, co-sponsored by 17 Democrats, never even won a committee hearing.
Meanwhile, a proposal to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which could save Washington state an estimated $40 million, passed Congress but the president vetoed it. Bush said the bill would expand the program beyond its mission to help low-income children.
Sen. Patty Murray made good on her pledge to win more money for veterans care, including treatment for traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. She also brought attention to delays veterans face in obtaining disability payments.
One of her key pieces of legislation, the Wounded Warrior Act, aims to improve and streamline medical care for active-duty military and veterans of the war. It passed Congress the week before last.
Murray, as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, obtained $177 million in funding for transportation projects for Washington state.
The projects include tens of millions for Sound Transit's light-rail projects and money for Washington State Ferries and the new South Lake Union streetcar.
Bush has threatened to cancel thousands of projects that lawmakers inserted into the spending proposals, saying they are wasteful, but it's not clear which projects would be targeted.
Another chapter was added this year to the long-running fight over a sales-tax deduction for taxpayers in Washington and six other states.
In January, Rep Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, pushed through a bill in the House that would continue a provision that allows residents to deduct sales taxes from their federal taxes.
Cantwell got a Senate version on track.
But during the chaos over controversial tax legislation this month, Cantwell and Murray agreed to drop the provision, promising to bring it back later.
The deduction will still be available for 2007 tax returns, but it expires next year without congressional action.
Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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