WASHINGTON, D.C. - After a busy week on the floor, Cong. William Delahunt could not refrain from putting his feet up on his desk to rest.
"It's been frenetic," he said last Friday, taking a short break in his House office across the street from the Capitol. "Long hours, but productive."
In the opening days of the 110th Congress - the first time Democrats have held a majority in the House since Congressman Delahunt took office 10 years ago - he and his colleagues have been following through on an ambitious plan to approve in their first 100 hours of legislation a list of initiatives with strong popular support from the American people.
Congressman Delahunt last Friday took some delight in reviewing the week's accomplishments.
Implementing the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission?
Raising the federal minimum wage?
Authorizing stem cell research?
House Democrats later that day passed a bill requiring the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries, and this Wednesday cut by half interest rates for need-based student loans. A vote was planned yesterday on a bill that would repeal billions of dollars in tax subsidies for oil and gas companies, with the money to be rerouted to renewable energy projects.
"We're taking on the drug companies today, and the oil companies next week," Congressman Delahunt said last Friday. "It's our Main Street project, as opposed to the K Street project. Lobbyists are not going to be writing the legislation anymore."
He acknowledged that the House bills are not guaranteed approval in the Senate, where the Democratic majority is razor-thin. But he described a markedly changed mood in Washington, D.C., where a wave of new lawmakers were swept into office by voters last fall.
"The American people are engaged," said Congressman Delahunt, a popular incumbent who sailed to a sixth term representing southeastern Massachusetts with 65 per cent of the vote. "For the first time in a long time, the nation's political leadership is focused on getting on the same page as the American people," he added.
"It's exciting," the congressman said. "It's exciting because there is hope."
The legislative accomplishments of House Democrats last week were largely overshadowed by an announcement from President George W. Bush that he will increase American forces in Iraq by adding some 21,500 troops. An early and consistent opponent of the war, Congressman Delahunt last Friday referred to Iraq as the worst American foreign policy decision in modern history, and did not have any kinder words for the latest troop surge.
"It is a plan in search of reality. It just does not fit with the reality of Iraq," said Congressman Delahunt, one of 133 House members who in fall 2002 voted against authorizing the use of military force in Iraq. "This plan is an attempt to salvage the Bush legacy. It is not a plan that in my judgment will change anything in Iraq."
The congressman last week co-sponsored a resolution expressing that a troop increase is the wrong course of action, and that a drastic shift in political and diplomatic strategy is needed to help secure and stabilize Iraq. He also joined with a dozen other Democrats in filing a bill that would prohibit the use of funds for an escalation of forces beyond the current size of roughly 130,000 troops. The proposal parallels a similar piece of legislation filed by Sen. Edward Kennedy in the Senate. Both Massachusetts lawmakers admit that it will be politically impossible to withhold the funds for troops once the President has sent them to Iraq, but they maintain the bills will at least guarantee further discussion, something that was largely absent while Republicans controlled Congress.
"You know what's important? At least we're going to be talking about it," Congressman Delahunt said. "There will be hearings we never had, there will be transparency, there will be questions."
The day before, he posed some of those questions to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who testified about the planned troop increase before both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on which Congressman Delahunt sits. It marked the committee's first full hearing on the Iraq war since this past April.
"I asked the secretary why she described [the troop surge] as an Iraqi plan, when that doesn't reconcile with the facts," the congressman recounted on Friday. "Her own State Department issued a poll that revealed 75 per cent of Iraqi people want us to withdraw and feel our presence is provoking violence, while 60 per cent of Iraqi people support attacks against American troops," he said, leaning forward in his chair.
"That's the context," Congressman Delahunt said. "That's the reality."
The congressional hearings on the troop surge last Thursday were particularly noteworthy for their bipartisan opposition to the new plan, with some leading Republicans, such as Sen. Charles Hagel of Nebraska, emerging as the loudest critics. It is something Congressman Delahunt wanted to emphasize.
"This isn't just Democrats - that's important to understand," he said. "I've noticed a growing divide among Republicans. There has been frustration on their side."
After the interview last Friday, Congressman Delahunt met privately with his former Republican colleague on the House Judiciary Committee, Cong. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who lost his committee seat for breaking with party leadership on issues such as immigration and earmark reform.
Congressman Delahunt pointed to Congressman Flake's willingness to now speak out as a sign that more Republicans are looking to engage in respectful debate and an open exchange of ideas, rather than hard and strict partisanship.
"The narrow conservative wing of that party really has dominated the agenda in the House and in the country, and led us in a direction that most Americans don't want to travel, whether it be Iraq, or an embrace of corporate welfare," he said. "But things have changed. We're not going to have the same corrosive impact in the legislative process that occurred over the past 12 years."
Congressman Delahunt kept busy last week, co-sponsoring about 10 bills in addition to the seven initiatives from the 100 hours of legislation. Though he does not expect it to gain much traction, he re-filed a bill on the first day of the legislative session to abolish the electoral college system and determine the American presidential election by a nationwide popular vote. It is a position he has held for many years, and one that was strengthened by the 2000 election and its aftermath.
"I think history will reflect that the electoral college was an anachronism that did a huge disservice to the American people and the United States," Congressman Delahunt said, letting the statement hang in the air for a moment before making his suggestion explicit. "It was responsible for George Bush. It was responsible for eight years of seeing American prestige erode across the world."
Restoring the reputation of the country will be a primary goal for the congressman during the current term. He was recently appointed chairman of the foreign affairs subcommittee on investigations and oversight, and he also plans to travel abroad and meet with world leaders to speak about energy initiatives, among other things. He announced this week that he will lead a congressional delegation to Germany this spring to review technologies for deep-water offshore wind turbines.
Despite his obvious misgivings with the current administration and the direction of the war, he remains optimistic about the future of the country and the next two years of a Democratically-controlled Congress.
"To use a nautical metaphor, it's like we're steering the Titanic so we can just miss that iceberg," said Congressman Delahunt, who served eight years in the Coast Guard reserves.
"It's exciting for me because I think the people I represent are entitled to a better future, and for the first time I can see it," he continued. "There are still a lot of clots. But I can see it."