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.
Even the port-screening provision has a loophole. The secretary of homeland security can extend the deadline for full cargo screening by two years at a time if he deems it necessary.
A provision that declassifies the total annual intelligence budget was recommended by the Sept. 11 commission but is opposed by the White House. In a compromise with the administration, negotiators agreed to order a study that could allow the president to waive disclosure after two years if the report finds declassification has damaged national security, said Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the ranking Republican on the Senate homeland security committee.
"If he doesn't sign the 9/11 bill, I'll sleepwalk my way to 2008," Emanuel said. "It's game, set, match."
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said it is his understanding that the provisions most opposed by Bush had been removed, but the administration is still studying the accord.
The ethics agreement is expected to include a ban on lobbyist-funded meals, gifts and travel; restrictions on the use of corporate jets; and a mandate that lobbyists publicly disclose money they spend on events, foundations, conferences and charities tied to lawmakers.
The children's health bill presents a similar quandary for Republicans. The president has promised a veto, but Republicans are not convinced that he will follow through. The bills are designed to be paid for with a tax increase on tobacco. The House bill would also cut what Democrats call overpayments to managed care companies in the Medicare program in order to stave off cuts in physician reimbursement under Medicare, and it would increase funding for rural health care.
LaHood predicted that at least 20 Republicans will buck their leaders and vote for the bill. "When you look at the way they put this package together, it's a pretty good way to do it," he said. "I think it will withstand the criticism."
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.