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National Perspective

Tsongas's slim victory signals a derailed Congress

The focus after Niki Tsongas's win in the Fifth District was largely on what some saw as her small margin of victory, amid concerns that the Democratic-led Congress is going off its rail. The focus after Niki Tsongas's win in the Fifth District was largely on what some saw as her small margin of victory, amid concerns that the Democratic-led Congress is going off its rail. (Elise Amendola/associated press)

WASHINGTON - Last week's election of Niki Tsongas should have been a moment of celebration for House Democrats. One of the party's most successful and influential franchises, the all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation, gained a new face, its first woman in decades. A storied name in Massachusetts and national politics returned to elected office.

Instead, the focus was largely on what some saw as Tsongas's disappointingly small margin, amid growing worries that the Democratic-led Congress was going off its rails.

Both the House Republican leadership and the Republican National Committee touted the fact that Jim Ogonowski, a candidate largely ignored by the national party, had come within six points of victory in a solidly Democratic district. The RNC declared that the Democratic wave had finally crested.

It's an open question whether national political winds, or factors specific to Tsongas and Ogonowski, accounted for the narrow spread in the race. But there are very few people outside the Democratic leadership who believe that Congress is on the right track.

The big issue last week was children's healthcare, and the exertions of Democratic leadership in moving to expand a popular children's-health insurance program may pay some political dividends. It is an issue that strikes at the conscience of most Democrats and will become a tentpole for the party's national platform.

But many Democrats hoped to peel off enough Republican votes to override President Bush's veto and give the congressional leadership something it deeply needs: the satisfaction of actually seeing a major initiative become law. The override narrowly failed. And while Bush took some heat for his veto, even from fellow Republicans, it may help the GOP take back the issue of fiscal responsibility for 2008.

It now seems as though the Republicans, despite embarrassments like the scandal surrounding Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, have regained some of their political footing.

The key moment may have been General David H. Petraeus's report to Congress proclaiming the success of Bush's troop "surge" in Iraq. Polls show the report didn't make a significant difference in public support for the war. But it now stands as the official position of the US military, and gives congressional Republicans a reason to keep supporting the war other than loyalty to Bush.

By keeping its own members in line, the GOP can assure that Congress will not be able to stop the war, simply because it will never be able to override Bush's vetoes. And if and when Democrats try to scale back the war by imposing conditions on funding bills, the GOP will have its usual response ready: Any such efforts are a betrayal of the troops.

The same argument applies to any effort to take account of the fiscal toll of the war. Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told congressional committees that he would be adding another $45 billion in unanticipated costs to the already requested $145 billion for war funding.

That extra $45 billion, a drop in the bucket compared with the estimated $500 billion already spent on Iraq alone, is more than six times what the children's health expansion would have cost per year. It is more than twice what it would cost to give $5,000 to every baby born in America, the now-abandoned proposal by Hillary Clinton that was derided by the GOP as fiscal insanity.

Any attempt by the Democrats to compare the cost of the war with the relatively smaller costs of their social programs risks an accusation of disloyalty to the troops. Failure to compare those costs to the war gives Republicans the upper hand on fiscal issues.

Last week in Iowa, Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani tore into Clinton and the Democratic congressional leaders for overspending. Across the state, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson was tearing into his own party for failing to stop the war.

For Democrats in Congress - now including Tsongas - a pattern of futility now seems clear: Try - but fail - to stop an unpopular war. Then either accede to spiraling Pentagon requests or be accused of abandoning the troops. And expect even modest increases in social spending to be hammered as an assault on taxpayers.

Conventional wisdom says perpetuating an unpopular war creates political peril for the GOP. But perpetuating the Democrats' pattern of failure either to stop the war or advance their social agenda can't help their party, either.

The probability that such a pattern will continue into next year ought to strike as much fear into Democratic hearts as Tsongas's narrow margin.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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