On the Hill, Parties Stake Out Election Stands
Saturday, August 5, 2006
With only four legislative weeks left, congressional Republicans and Democrats have defined their positions on most key issues in the Nov. 7 elections, staking their political fortunes on sharply different views about Iraq, immigration, taxes and stem cell research.
Both parties are still honing their messages, but the outlines came into focus late this week as Congress wrapped up its work for the summer. Local issues will play important roles in some House races, but polls suggest the election will largely be a national referendum on President Bush's performance, especially the war in Iraq.
After privately debating the war for months, congressional Democrats coalesced this week around a call to begin withdrawing U.S. troops this year. Republicans have concluded they have little choice but to stand by the president by supporting his war policies and resisting a timetable for withdrawing troops.
The impasse in the Senate on Thursday ensures that tax and minimum-wage policies will play a big role in many campaigns this fall. Democrats blocked a GOP bid to link a deep and permanent cut in the estate tax -- which would benefit the wealthiest Americans -- with an increase in the federal minimum wage, which would help the working poor.
Each party seems convinced the other has misplayed its hand. Republicans say the Democrats may have the tougher task in explaining why, after pushing for an increase in the minimum wage for years, they rejected a bill that included one.
Immigration is a trickier matter, because the key impasse involves House Republicans on one side and Senate Republican leaders and Bush on the other. House Republicans have vowed to crack down on illegal immigration before taking any other steps. Solid majorities of Democrats favor a more comprehensive approach, as do the president and a minority of GOP senators. They would include a guest-worker program and means for some illegal immigrants to gain legal status.
With a House-Senate accord unlikely before Nov. 7, Democrats are branding Republicans incapable of solving tough problems despite their control of Congress and the White House. House Republicans say most voters embrace their immigration stance, but their message is blunted by Bush's opposition.
The stem cell issue also is vexing for Republicans. Most House and Senate GOP lawmakers support increasing federal financing of embryonic stem cell research, but Bush used his first veto last month to reject it. Democrats in key races are portraying Republicans as beholden to a far-right constituency, and Bush's veto complicates the efforts of pro-research Republicans to defend themselves and their party.
Framing the midterm election is somewhat simpler for Republicans, because Bush's presidency gives them fewer options. The economy is reasonably strong, they say, and the Iraq war must be won, so voters should stick with the president and his party.
Democrats have more options, and there are signs that they still struggle to settle on a succinct message and a top priority or two. They quietly jettisoned an earlier motto -- "Together, America Can Do Better" -- in favor of "New Direction for America" and "Do-Nothing Congress." They recently unveiled a campaign platform containing half a dozen priorities -- "Six for '06" -- that included college tuition subsidies and incentives for biofuels and personal savings.
Despite the cafeteria approach, Democratic leaders say their party is sharpening its differences with the GOP, giving voters clear-cut options.
"This campaign is real simple," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), head of his party's campaign to gain the House majority. On the war and the economy, he said, the Republican battle cry is "stay the course" while the Democrats promise a "new direction." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that "Democrats will own August" by holding 250 "New Direction" events and town hall meetings nationwide.
Republican strategists, faced with a GOP president whose approval ratings stand below 40 percent, say their party can hold Congress by sticking with the president on Iraq and characterizing the war as a vital part of a broader fight against terrorism.
Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said GOP candidates will ask voters to decide which "is the better party to ensure that Americans are protected from terrorists in a post-9/11 society." They will quickly add that the economy "continues to grow," he said, and note Democrats' opposition to most of Bush's tax cuts.
Nick said Senate Democrats outsmarted themselves by blocking the bill to cut estate taxes -- a longtime GOP goal -- and raise the minimum wage, a perennial Democratic priority. They can hardly call for bipartisan cooperation, or denounce a "do-nothing Congress," after rejecting a classic compromise, he said.
Republicans immediately attacked Senate Democrats who opposed the wage-tax bill. "Bob Menendez had a chance to vote for an increase in the minimum wage last evening, but after all his lip service he voted AGAINST an increase for New Jersey's neediest workers," said a release from Republican Tom Kean Jr., who is trying to oust Menendez. Similar GOP blasts were fired at Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).
Menendez, in an interview, said he is not worried. When voters see that major labor unions and "liberal lions" including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) opposed the hybrid bill, he said, they will dismiss it as a GOP ploy.
Emanuel said that Democrats will rightly blame Republicans for failing to raise the minimum wage, and that they need not bother with details about how Senate Democrats blocked the wage-tax bill in a procedural vote. Republicans "are sitting in the driver's seat" and are responsible for getting things done, he said. "Don't sweat the details."