WASHINGTON -- There's nothing like the anticipation -- or the fear -- of another presidential election to focus minds on Capitol Hill.
For months, rank-and-file Democrats have fretted about a party adrift, unable to bridge philosophical gaps and take the offensive on any number of domestic and foreign policy matters.
But in the past few weeks, Democrats in Congress have begun to serve up an array of aggressive, pre-campaign-season legislative initiatives -- bills that may not have much chance of becoming law but have the clear virtue of sharpening distinctions between the two parties.
"Looks like the campaign season is already well under way up here," grumbled Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan.
Mr. Dole's comment punctuated Thursday's approval by the Senate Finance Committee of a Democratic-sponsored bill to extend unemployment insurance payments to people who have been out of work for more than a half-year. Although Democrats had talked of such legislation for months, it was only in the last two weeks -- as the recession began to taper and Democratic backbenchers muttered that their leaders were frittering away a chance to make some political hay -- that key lawmakers lined up the support necessary to push it through the congressional machinery.
The result is a bill that appears destined to split the Republican ranks and put the White House on the defensive, forcing President Bush to choose between the rejection of a politically attractive initiative and the acceptance of it -- along with accompanying higher taxes or a bigger budget deficit.
Administration officials say the legislation's cost, about $5.8 billion, is not justified because the recession is already coming to an end. They have threatened a veto of the bill, should it ever reach the Oval Office.
In all likelihood, it will. Despite the administration's pleas, five of the panel's eight Republicans quietly joined all 11 Democrats in voting for the bill -- virtually assuring that it will pass handily on the Senate floor.
House Democrats, meanwhile, have concocted a clever variant that gives Mr. Bush a choice of declaring an unemployment emergency -- thus obviating the need to observe budget strictures laid down in last year's sweeping deficit agreement -- or paying for the new unemployment benefits with a new payroll tax, something Mr. Bush has vowed not to accept.
"We want to give him the choice," said one of the bill's authors, Representative Thomas J. Downey, D-N.Y. "It's up to him whether to pay for it or not."
Democrats are trying to force the president to make other kinds of choices while making sure the public takes note of his decisions.
Last week, for example, the Senate voted to allow normal trade relations with China only if it took significant steps to improve its human rights record. Though the 55-44 vote fell far short of the 67 needed to override a veto, it served as a no-confidence vote in the president's China policy and forced Mr. Bush to go on record as opposing congressional efforts to force the Beijing regime to mend its ways.
"The vote speaks for itself," said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. "The American people don't want to support brutality in China."
Before the China vote, the House voted overwhelmingly -- but again, short of a veto-proof majority -- to prevent companies from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers. Although the bill is unlikely to become law, Representative Barney Frank, D-Mass., said it does serve "to put everyone on notice where we stand and where the Republicans stand."
Similarly, Democratic leaders are moving new legislation that is intended partly to further distinguish their liberalism from Mr. Bush's self-described "kinder, gentler" brand of conservatism.
The Senate, for example, is getting ready to consider a Democratic-sponsored measure opposed by conservative Republicans that would force employers to grant unpaid leave to workers caring for newborn children or ill relatives. After senators return from their monthlong August recess, they will dive into debate on the civil rights bill adopted last month by the House over the president's protests.
House Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have put the final touches on the outline of an $850 million anti-crime package crafted to stand in contrast to the administration-supported bill passed by the Senate. While the House bill would include many of the provisions of the Senate bill, including a broad expansion of crimes considered capital offenses, it would channel more money to state and local law enforcement agencies.
Nevertheless, a few bills do not a juggernaut make. A $153.5 billion highway bill was readied for consideration on the House floor last week, only to have Democrats fighting each other over the proposed 5-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase to fund it. The tax-writing Ways and Means Committee is to take up the matter this week, and many Democrats are reluctant to support yet another tax that Mr. Bush vehemently -- and very publicly -- opposes.