Taxes, Health Lead Hill Agenda

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), right, said that for Republicans, domestic policy
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), right, said that for Republicans, domestic policy "tends to unite us more." (By Lawrence Jackson -- Associated Press)

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007

Out of a political stalemate over Iraq, domestic policy is surging to prominence on Capitol Hill, with Republicans and Democrats preparing for a time-honored clash over health care, tax policy, the scope of government and its role in America's problems at home.

The brewing veto fight this week over an expanded children's health insurance program is only the most visible sign of the new emphasis on domestic issues. Democratic White House hopefuls are resurrecting a push for universal health care while talking up tax policy, poverty and criminal justice. Democratic congressional leaders are revisiting Clinton-era battles over hate crimes and federal funding for local police forces.

The White House, at the urging of congressional Republican leaders, is spoiling for a fight on Democratic spending. And GOP leaders are looking for any opportunity for confrontations on illegal immigration and taxation.

At the heart of it all is a central question: Thirteen years after the 1994 Republican Revolution, has the country turned to the left in search of government solutions to intractable domestic problems?

Democrats think that the answer is yes. "As conditions deteriorate, Americans are asking, 'Who can make it better? Where can we look for help?' And not surprisingly, government is increasingly the answer," said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster.

Even Republicans see a growing unease as the driving force in the domestic policy resurgence.

"There's no question the economy is good, but it's not a good for everybody," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio.). "When you look at family incomes, there hasn't been much rise. But there has been increased health-care costs, increased energy costs. They're nibbling up more than the family budget. It just drives more concerns."

For both parties, domestic policy fights are a welcome break after three election cycles dominated by terrorism and war. Republican and Democratic political leaders say they cannot shy away from the Iraq war. But for much of the year, the fight over the war has only shown Democrats to be ineffectual and Republicans to be intransigent.

For Democrats, a break in that fight could allow them to focus on issues that voters say demand attention. Last year's election victories by Democratic Sens. James Webb in Virginia and Jon Tester in Montana, and by Democratic governors in Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa and Ohio, show that a populist message can prevail even in swing states.

For Republicans, changing the subject is simply a relief.

"I think it is territory that tends to unite us more," said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "Republicans tend to squabble, but when it's fiscal issues, when it's economic issues, we tend to come together. That's what makes us Republicans."

If so, the GOP may be having an identity crisis. Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and President Bush have met regularly on what Boehner calls his "rebranding" initiative: winning back for the GOP the mantle of fiscal discipline and limited government.


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