By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 2, 2006
In a bid to help embattled incumbents win tough reelection campaigns in November, House Republican leaders last week muscled through more than 165 bills that their members can use to win over voters back home -- and deflect attention from the scandals they left behind in Washington.
The scandal brewing around former Florida representative Mark Foley's inappropriate e-mails to teenage boys is only the latest in a series of indictments, resignations and accusations to rock Washington. In the face of such ill winds, House Republican leaders have urged GOP candidates to focus their campaigns on local issues and personal accomplishments. The last days of legislating were devoted to giving the candidates the specifics to run on.
Dozens of the made-to-order bills that flew through the House bear the names of the endangered lawmakers, from Pennsylvania Rep. Jim Gerlach's Open Space and Farmland Preservation Act to Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays's reauthorization of the HOPE VI housing program, to measures to preserve Native American languages and assist in water planning for Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.).
"If you've got people with must-do pieces of legislation, you want to help them out," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), the vice chairman of the House Republican Conference.
To be sure, larding up bills for endangered incumbents is nothing new. But with money tight and only two spending bills completed, this year's efforts focused less on home-district spending and more on substantive measures tailored to specific constituents -- a "suburban agenda" for embattled Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia, bills to appeal to Christian conservatives for troubled Midwestern Republicans and expressions of independence for Republicans from districts that have turned against President Bush.
Kingston said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), in his first end-of-session rush in that post, proved masterful at filling blank spots on the House's agenda with long-sought legislation.
The name of Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.), one of the most threatened incumbents, was blazed across the Public Expression of Religion Act, which passed the House Tuesday and would deny legal fees to anyone winning a lawsuit to block the display of religious symbols in public places. The little-noticed "GOP Suburban Agenda" that cleared the House in recent weeks included eight bills, seven of which were authored by Republicans in jeopardy.
"People care about these issues," said Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), an endangered freshman who returned to Bucks County over the weekend to tout an "online predators" bill and a measure to promote charitable giving for open-space preservation to counter Democratic attacks that have been fixated on the war in Iraq.
"I've got the quintessential suburban district," Fitzpatrick said. "When I go home and go to the ball fields with my wife, this is what people want to talk about, parklands and 'my space.' "
On the campaign trail, such small-bore bills are likely to be featured far more prominently than the measures that captured more headlines in Congress's last days, such as legislation creating military commissions to try suspected terrorists, a House-passed bill authorizing Bush's warrantless wiretapping, final approval of a 700-mile fence on the U.S.-Mexico border, and bills covering port security, defense policy, military spending and homeland security funding.
Democratic campaign chiefs remain confident that such local measures will have little impact in an election year that they say remains a referendum on the president's leadership.
"There are forces bigger and more powerful at work," shrugged Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Democratic leaders have not let up in criticizing what they call a "do-nothing Congress," which has delayed action on a legion of big-ticket items. Despite personal promises from Republican leaders in the wake of influence-peddling scandals, changes to the rules governing lobbying were never made. Nine of 11 annual spending bills haven't passed. High-profile efforts to authorize Bush's warrantless wiretapping, open offshore areas to oil drilling and reform the rules on foreign investment after the Dubai ports fiasco all fell short of a presidential signing ceremony.
Bush's top three domestic priorities -- a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws, a remaking of Social Security and simplification of the tax code -- went nowhere. The minimum wage has not been raised for a decade. And the last, best chance for conservatives to virtually eliminate the estate tax permanently may have passed if Democrats gain seats in the House and Senate in November.
But in a year when National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.) has implored candidates to resist national themes in their campaigns, major legislation may be beside the point, GOP aides say. Not when Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) will get money to deal with leaking underground storage tanks in his district, when Rep. Randy Kuhl (R-N.Y.) will get to tout his National Dam Safety Act and when Rep. Mark Green (R-Wis.) can claim bragging rights for the transfer of national forest land to the towns of Laona and Wabeno, Wis., as he campaigns for governor.
"I asked for help and I got it," Gerlach said of the leadership's last-minute scheduling of a vote on his open spaces and farmland preservation bill. "It was legislation my district wants. It was something my legislative district has a need for."
The effort to achieve such successes went to extraordinary lengths last week, even almost bringing down a major defense policy bill. House and Senate negotiators nearly failed to reach agreement on the defense bill, not because of issues such as the prohibition on torture that held up the bill last year, but because of an issue that had nothing to do with national defense -- a measure to clamp down on illegal immigrant gangs.
During a rare news conference, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) publicly challenged Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), saying he would not bring the defense policy bill to the House floor without the gang provision. Asked why Hastert had singled out the gang measure for his stand, one senior House leadership aide pointed to the person standing next to the speaker: freshman Rep. David G. Reichert (R-Wash.), the provision's author, who is running neck-and-neck with Microsoft executive Darcy Burner.
In the end, Hastert relented, but he offered Reichert a promise to be used on the campaign trail. The gang measure will be one of the first revisited when Congress returns after the election.