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Byline: Lisa Friedman

Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Southern California Democrats left town Thursday claiming victory on energy, ethics and student loans while blaming Republicans for blocking change in Iraq and other issues that swept them into power this year for the first time in a decade.

Republicans, meanwhile, blasted back at Democrats as disorganized and ineffectual. They ridiculed the new majority for surrendering stated principles on transparency and the budget, and charged them with ignoring many of California's needs.

Political analysts said they found some truth in both assessments, but in a city where spin is king, many said that unless Democrats change strategies next year they are in danger of being painted a do-nothing Congress.

"The Republican leadership and the Republican president have had the upper hand, politically, and have spun the developments of the past year very much in their favor," said Bruce Cain, director of the University of California Washington Center.

Democrats, Cain said, "are losing the message war. That's hurting their image, and that, down the road, could hurt their ability to pick up seats."

Indeed, among Southland Republicans, the Democrats' lack of focus was a common theme.

"I'm a result-oriented guy," said Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Thousand Oaks. "We heard so much about the Democrats -- their mantra last year was 'do-nothing Congress,' -- but we passed more good pieces of legislation dealing with banking reform, welfare. And we did it with 700 votes.

"This year we had more votes than any other Congress in history, and we've done less than any other Congress," he said. "We've done a lot of things for political spin, but where the rubber hits the road, very little."

Rep. David Dreier, R-Glendora, pointed out that on a number of issues including children's health insurance and saving the middle class from extra taxes, Democrats ultimately backed down.

Democrats initially passed a broad expansion of the children's health insurance program and vowed to fight GOP opposition and President Bush's veto as a campaign issue. But on Wednesday they agreed to simply extend the program to March with no expansion.

And despite long and loud insistence that Congress abide by a "pay-as-you-go" policy so as not to add to the national deficit, Democrats broke their own budget rule when they saved more than 20 million Americans from having to pay the alternative minimum tax next year -- but neither cut spending nor added taxes to cover the money now gone from the budget.

"They've lost the political issue, and we ended up doing what we could have done from the very beginning," Dreier said.

Some Republicans even claimed those issues as GOP victories this year.

"This has been a remarkably effective year for Republicans," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, said in a statement. "Despite finding ourselves in the difficult position of being in the minority for the first time in 12 years, we worked as a team and held strong to our legislative agenda and governing principles.

"I don't believe we could have projected such success a year ago."

House Democrats, for their part, acknowledged frustrations -- particularly on Iraq -- but said overall they were proud of their accomplishments.

"The war continues to be of great concern," said Rep. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, who voted against a $516 billion budget bill after Senate Democrats allocated $70 billion to continue funding the Iraq war exactly as Bush had demanded.

Also voting against the bill because of the Iraq provision were Reps. Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino; Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles; Jane Harman, D-El Segundo; Grace Napolitano, D- Santa Fe Springs; Linda Sanchez, D-Lakewood; Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks; Maxine Waters, D- Los Angeles; and Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles.

Still, Solis noted particular strides on energy efficiency and climate change, adding, "We got the most that we could out of this administration."

Other Democrats pointed to the passage of 9-11 recommendations, an increase in the minimum wage, tough new ethics and lobbying rules, and expanded student loans.

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, called the legislative wins reasonably impressive.

But, he noted, "It's a list that doesn't include any action on a whole series of really pressing problems, starting with Iraq."

Sen. Barbara Boxer conceded that Democrats overpromised on the war when they were elected to the majority in the House and Senate.

"We really believed if we took back the Congress, the president would meet us halfway," she said.

Still, Boxer said, "We certainly haven't stopped the war, and we haven't done the big health-care fix we wanted, I would say we accomplished a lot more than people realize."

Added Schiff, "I think we did well. I think the House actually did a great job, but we have such a thin margin in the Senate that many important policy changes were effectively blocked by the minority party.

"I think that's going to cost them at the polls, and I wouldn't be surprised if we had a much bigger margin in the Senate coming out of the '08 elections."

Other Democrats also cited the party's inability this year to push through policies from stem cell research to immigration to an expansion of children's health insurance as a reason to elect even more of them.

"From cover to cover, changes have been made. But there's an intransigent minority that is setting up roadblocks," Becerra said. "With the players on the field, we won't change America as quickly as America wants to change.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 21, 2007

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