Final Week Yields Plenty of Campaign Fodder
After two months of moving fitfully on the legislative agenda, Congress spent last week speeding through high-profile bills that will serve as ammunition for heated campaign fights from now through November.
In the days before breaking for the current two-week recess, the House passed a controversial ethics reform bill and a new version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which brought that hot-button issue no closer to a bipartisan resolution. At the same time, both the House and Senate passed budget resolutions that painted stark differences between the two parties' tax and spending priorities while also punting substantive action on the issue of earmarks.
On all three of those fronts, Congressional Democrats pushed their agendas through largely along party lines. Capitol Briefing can already hear the sound of campaign committees on both sides of the aisle cutting television ads attacking each other for how they voted last week. Let's take a closer look at how each of the three issues will play out on the trail:
Budget. Crafting and passing a spending blueprint for the coming year is one of the biggest privileges -- and headaches -- of being in the majority on Capitol Hill. Cobbling together a budget that reflects your party's priorities and draws the support of all your different internal factions while still making at least some semblance of fiscal sense is always tough, and this year has been no different.
Both the House and Senate passed budgets last week including just over $1 trillion in spending (not including mandatory programs like Social Security and Medicare). Both are more than $20 billion larger than President Bush's proposed plan, and as he did last year, Bush has vowed to veto appropriations bills that exceed what he requested, making it likely that Democratic leaders will defer action on most bills until next year in hopes that their party will control the White House.
On the campaign front, Republicans will slam Democrats for crafting budgets that assume some of Bush's tax cuts will expire in 2010; voting for those budgets is akin to voting for tax increases, in the GOP's narrative. Democrats point out that the budgets themselves don't really raise (or cut) taxes, and will look to shift the focus to all the money for popular programs that Republicans voted against.
Both the House and Senate debated, then rejected, one-year moratoriums on appropriations earmarks. Republicans have made their call for such a moratorium a key plank of their national campaign message, following the lead of the party's grassroots. But on a race-by-race level, it's not clear how salient the issue will be. For every member in either party who campaigns against earmarks, there will be plenty of incumbent lawmakers bragging to voters about their ability to bring home the federal bacon.
Ethics. After postponing consideration twice, House Democrats finally brought up a bill last week to create a new Office of Congressional Ethics, which will screen allegations and potential complaints against members and then pass them on to the existing ethics committee for possible action.
The bill proved to be hugely challenging for the majority, as Republicans charged that it would not fix the root of the current problem -- the ethics committee's alleged sloth -- while many Democrats decried the outsourcing of the House's self-investigative function. The measure passed only after a highly controversial procedural vote, on which Republicans allege Democrats broke House rules by holding the roll call open past the allotted time in order to twist arms.
That incident will be a staple of GOP messaging for the rest of the year as the minority attempts to make the case that the majority is mismanaging the House. But Democrats in turn will surely attack every Republican who voted no on the bill as being "against ethics reform," which explains why 33 Republicans broke with their leaders to vote yes on final passage.
FISA. The battle over terrorism surveillance legislation has been grinding along for several weeks now, and last week's action looks unlikely to bring the finish line any closer.
The last surveillance law, dubbed the Protect America Act, expired last month, and since then Democrats on one side and President Bush and the Hill GOP on the other have been pointing fingers over who is to blame for the ensuing standoff. Republicans want a new bill that included immunity for telecommunications companies that have assisted in past surveillance operations, while most Democrats oppose that idea. The Senate passed such a bill by a wide margin last month, but House Democrats refused to bring it up.
Instead, the House passed last week a new draft of a surveillance bill that gives telecom firms a chance to defend their past actions in secret court proceedings, but still doesn't give the companies immunity. The Senate has given no indication it will take up the latest House bill, leaving things still stuck in neutral.
For Republicans, this issue may well be the campaign mother lode. The GOP has struck gold in the past by painting Democrats as soft on national security and will surely work to do so again throughout the Congressional campaign season. Republicans have already been charging that Democrats are in the pockets of trial lawyers, a time-honored staple of the GOP playbook.
Democrats, for their part, have all-but accused Bush of lying about whether the nation is currently in danger because of the impasse, charging the president and his party with fear-mongering and trying to cover up potentially illegal behavior. Even if the two sides somehow reach a compromise in the coming weeks, you can expect FISA to be a headlining campaign issue right through Election Day.
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