Republicans plan to use Congress to pull Sen. John F. Kerry and vulnerable Democrats into the cultural wars over gay rights, abortion and guns, envisioning a series of debates and votes that will highlight the candidates' positions on divisive issues, according to congressional aides and GOP officials.
The strategy will be on full display today, as Kerry (Mass.) and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), the leading Democratic presidential candidates, plan to interrupt their Super Tuesday campaigning to fly to Washington for half a dozen votes on gun legislation, including liability protections for gun manufacturers. Both men oppose the liability bill, placing them in their party's majority even though some prominent Democrats -- including Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) -- support the bill.
A top Edwards aide said the senator is "not thrilled" to be voting on gun control one week before southern states such as Texas hold their primaries. Kerry, who has missed every Senate vote this year -- plus several key votes last year -- canceled a Florida campaign event tonight to be on hand for the gun votes, several of which are expected to be close.
Steve Elmendorf, a senior Kerry adviser, said of the strategy by congressional Republicans and the administration, "We just have to aggressively defend our interests and make sure they do not abuse their power by coming up with phony political ideas." He said Kerry will rely on fellow Democrats to defend him in Congress most of the time.
Republicans openly welcome the discomfort that votes on issues such as gun control might cause Kerry, Edwards and other Democrats, now and later this year. "The Senate floor is full of bear traps," said Eric Ueland, deputy chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
GOP leaders are not specifically scheduling votes to influence the election, he said, but they are aware of the political calendar and the potential impact of congressional votes. "We've got a lot of things to get done," Ueland said. "If they have resonance with the campaign, that's an added benefit."
One of the most divisive issues looming is a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages, which President Bush has endorsed. A Senate panel holds hearings on the topic this week, even though Senate and House leaders appear far from figuring how to build the two-thirds majority required of each chamber to send the proposal to the states for ratification.
Republicans also plan a series of votes on judicial appointments and tax cuts this year that could put Kerry in tough political spots, according to a senior GOP leadership aide. Another possible wedge issue, aides in both parties say, is a long-standing proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw burning the American flag.
Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), chairman of the Republican Conference, said the GOP is justified in pushing for votes that highlight some of its strongest issues with voters. Democrats, he said, "love to talk about education and health care," two issues that traditionally benefit their own party.
In several ways, the congressionally led attacks on Kerry and Edwards have begun. Last week, House GOP leaders called a news conference to play an audiotape by Sharon Rocha, the mother of Laci Peterson. Peterson was eight months pregnant when she was slain in 2002; her husband has been charged with murder.
Rocha, advocating a Republican-drafted bill that would treat attacks on a pregnant woman as separate crimes against her and her fetus, noted that Kerry and Edwards had "refused to support it." Critics say the legislation, which the House passed Thursday, would undermine abortion rights by conferring new legal status upon fetuses.
The House's three highest-ranking Republicans -- Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) and Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) -- were scheduled to attend the event, assuring a large news media turnout. Only Blunt, however, showed up.
Also last week, DeLay used his weekly news briefing to denounce Kerry's Vietnam War record, citing what he described as the senator's "accusing his brothers-in-arms in Vietnam of wholesale rape and murder, and his bizarre refusal to answer questions about his disturbing record." Kerry, a decorated war veteran, testified before Congress in 1971 about reports of atrocities committed by U.S. troops.
Today's scheduled Senate votes include a bid to extend the assault weapons ban, which expires this year, and to require criminal background checks of buyers at gun shows. Many Democrats oppose granting liability protection to gun manufacturers but strongly support the measures on gun shows and assault weapons. Kerry and Edwards favor those two provisions as well, even though gun groups, a political force in many swing states, plan to highlight today's votes to paint the Democratic nominee as hostile to gun owners.
Some Democrats believe Al Gore's gun-control advocacy cost him states such as West Virginia, where a victory would have given him the presidency in 2000. Democratic presidential candidates have mostly avoided the issue during this year's primary season.
Republicans are not the only politicians to realize that Congress can be used as a snare -- as well as a launching pad -- for presidential hopefuls. In 1996, Senate Democrats forced a lengthy debate on raising the minimum wage, an unwelcome topic for Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.), that year's GOP presidential nominee. Dole, in a nod to his conservative base, first opposed an increase, then reluctantly endorsed it. Eventually he quit the Senate to avoid such quandaries while challenging President Bill Clinton.
This week, some Democrats say, the Republican congressional strategy might backfire. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote to Vice President Cheney yesterday, saying "there is a very real possibility" the Senate will deadlock today on extending the assault weapons ban. The vice president breaks Senate ties, and Schumer pointedly reminded Cheney that Bush has called for continuing the weapons ban -- even though many Bush supporters had assumed it would expire without the White House having to get involved.
Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.