Democrats Push Parcel of Bills That Could Split Republicans

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007

With a final deal yesterday on major homeland security legislation, Democratic leaders in Congress believe they can begin to lift Congress's rock-bottom approval ratings while driving an ideological wedge through the Republican Party on domestic issues.

House and Senate negotiators reached accord yesterday on legislation to implement most of the recommendations of the bipartisan commission that studied the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The deal could be enacted as early as this week. Agreement on a package of lobbying and ethics rules changes should be done by early next week. And congressional leaders hope to pass a significant expansion of the 10-year-old program to provide health insurance for children of the working poor.

Democratic leaders hope the flurry of late accomplishments over the next 10 days will put to rest Republican charges that the new Democratic majority has presided over a "post office" Congress, which has raised the minimum wage and done little else but rename federal buildings.

"We're sitting on the doorstep of a definitional moment," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. He said legislation on health care, the minimum wage, homeland security and congressional ethics would respond to virtually all the pressure points of an anxious public.

Republican leaders plan to stand in the way, arguing that Democrats are reviving big government programs that will intrude into the free market and taxpayers' wallets. They argue that a homeland security mandate that all maritime cargo be screened within five years will chill international trade. And the children's health insurance expansion amounts to "a giant tax increase in an effort to expand government-run health care," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

But against such philosophical stands, there is a stark political problem: How many Republicans are really going to oppose legislation expanding insurance coverage for children, tightening ethics rules and bolstering homeland security?

"They've had a pretty strong quarter," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who praised the insurance bill as "creative" and suggested the homeland security bill would pass overwhelmingly. "The first quarter was not so good, and that's why they're not looking so good in the polls, but this quarter is looking very good for them. They can send their members home crowing about their accomplishments, and they've done it in a bipartisan way, which is exactly what they promised to do," LaHood said.

House Republican Conference Chairman Adam H. Putnam (R-Fla.) conceded that his party has its public relations work cut out for it, battling what he called "the underlying warm and fuzzies" of the bills' titles -- especially the Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act. But he said Republicans would be able to make the case that a multibillion-dollar expansion of a government-funded program runs counter to taxpayers' wishes.

With only one significant accomplishment enacted on their watch -- a hike in the minimum wage -- Democratic leaders are anxious to get legislation to President Bush. The Sept. 11 commission deal would authorize significant increases in homeland security grants.

Tackling a major recommendation of the commission, the bill would halve the amount of state grants allocated based on politics instead of risk, cutting from 40 percent to about 20 percent the share allocated based on population.

It also dedicates a $400 million annual grant program to ensure interoperability of emergency radios at the local, state and federal levels. And it would require that within five years all U.S.-bound maritime cargo be scanned for radiation before it leaves foreign ports.

But Democrats ducked issues that have prompted stern veto threats from the White House. They quickly dropped a provision to allow federal airport screeners to unionize. They maintained a measure that provides legal protection for citizens who report suspicious activity on airplanes, trains and buses.

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