Tricky Votes Loom For 3 Candidates

By Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

With Congress returning today after a two-week break, leaders from both parties are preparing legislative agendas -- on issues including the economy, Iraq and immigration -- designed to present the three remaining White House candidates with dangerous political choices.

The obstacle course begins immediately, with a Democratic-sponsored Senate vote today on legislation to ease the mortgage crisis. Next week, Iraq will dominate, when Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker testify before two committees on which Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) serve.

By the week of April 21, sweeping housing legislation could reach the House floor. By the end of the month, an Iraq war funding bill could be moving, with a second economic stimulus package attached.

Republicans will counterpunch by pushing for a vote on tough immigration legislation, and by pressuring Democrats to cave in to their demands for legislation on surveillance of terrorism suspects that offers retroactive legal immunity to telephone companies that cooperated with the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping efforts. It is clear that Capitol Hill will be a battleground for one of the longest presidential campaigns in the nation's history.

"A lot of what we're thinking about is, A, what you've got to do to do the right thing, and, B, where the president is and where John McCain is," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.).

There's nothing new about using the congressional agenda as a staging ground for presidential campaign themes. In July 2004, just weeks before Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) accepted his party's nomination, Republicans forced a vote on an amendment to the Constitution that would have banned same-sex marriage. That proposal was part of close coordination between Senate GOP leaders and President Bush's campaign team.

Democrats say they hope to highlight some of McCain's less-popular positions by forcing him to vote on certain issues or take stands on the legislation from the trail, as Kerry was in 2004.

A test vote comes today when the Senate moves to take up legislation that would grant bankruptcy judges more authority to modify mortgages, provide $200 million for mortgage counseling, authorize state housing agencies to float revenue bonds for the purchase of homes in foreclosure and allow homebuilders to write off more losses from their taxes.

The bill fell to a Republican filibuster before Congress's spring recess, but after the Federal Reserve Board stepped in to rescue the investment firm Bear Stearns, Democratic leaders decided to try again.

They concede the measure is unlikely to garner the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican concerns that it cavalierly wades into the delicate subject of bankruptcy law. But to Democratic campaign strategists, the details of the bill are less important than making sure its intent can be boiled down to "help for struggling homeowners."

"The federal government has provided assistance to Wall Street. Now Congress must turn its attention to Main Street," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday.

Iraq is a more complicated political issue. When they discuss Iraq, Republicans and Democrats seem to be looking at different wars. To Democrats and their backers, the recent increase in sectarian violence is proof that Bush's troop increases more than a year ago have not calmed the country or fostered political and ethnic reconciliation.

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