Discourse returns to domestic issues

Lawmakers put tax cuts, health care at the fore in talks with constituents

War in Iraq

April 17, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- They lined up one by one at the microphone -- students, teachers, retirees, a Holocaust survivor, a Quaker -- voicing anxious questions and edgy suspicions about the war in Iraq and what the future might hold for U.S. forces there.

Doubts and fears dominated as about 75 Marylanders gathered in the Towson University Union on Monday night with Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore to debate what the U.S. role should be in Iraq once the war ends.

Cardin's gathering was pegged specifically to the conflict in Iraq. But elsewhere around the country, at forums with no set agenda, lawmakers meeting with their constituents during a two-week break from Washington are finding that the war is taking a back seat to domestic issues.

With polls showing that the public is more concerned about the economy than any other issue, most members of Congress are using their time at home to talk about tax cuts and health care -- not war costs and rebuilding Iraq.

Cardin's town hall meeting was just one of scores of sessions lawmakers have scheduled in all 50 states this week and next. The spring break affords members an important chance to connect with constituents and broadcast their message on the pressing issues of the day.

The Towson session drew mostly opponents of the war, such as Tracy Miller, 53, who said, "I think that we've been bullies for generations." Miller has a sign on her front lawn saying "War is not the answer" and a 20-year-old son whose Marine unit was sent into northern Iraq on Sunday.

"It'll get real messy -- messier than looting museums" in Iraq, said another attendee, Charlie Cooper, 55, of Baltimore. "Then we're going to leave."

But though the war is still very much on people's minds, few lawmakers are opting to debate it as they return home.

"It's an unpredictable subject," Cardin said after the Towson meeting, which lasted more than two hours. "You don't know what to expect. Most members want to go into a town hall meeting with a clear message to their constituents: Here's my position. Here's what we should do. But on this issue, there's a lot of uncertainty."

That is especially true for Democrats, who have been deeply split on the war since Congress began debating it in October. Cardin was one of the nearly 60 percent of congressional Democrats who voted "no" on a resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war with Iraq.

House Democrats sent their rank-and-file members home last week with a packet of talking points for sessions with constituents on issues ranging from homeland security to Bush's tax plan and proposed cuts in veterans' health programs.

Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who also opposed the war resolution, said the guidelines largely steered clear of Iraq.

"The reason for that is that we don't have a party position on the war," Daly said.

For Democrats, the shift in focus back to domestic issues is a welcome one after many months when their core issues -- such as education and health care -- were sidelined with the nation absorbed in the buildup toward war and the war itself.

"Everybody in the party feels very strongly about their support for the troops and the fantastic job they're doing," said Ranit Schmelzer, spokeswoman for Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. But "what many senators find when they go home is they're being asked about domestic issues -- that's what is affecting people's day-to-day lives."

That's true for Republicans as well as Democrats. David Winston, who does polls for congressional Republicans, says voters rate the economy above the war -- by nearly a 2-to-1 margin -- when ranking issues that will determine their vote for congressional candidates.

In a survey he did earlier this month, 29 percent said the economy and jobs were the most important issue in their voting decision; just 16 percent said war.

"It's not that people and members are not focused on it," said Winston, who runs the Alexandria-based Winston Group. "They basically see this war as now coming to a conclusion, and they're sort of moving on to the next thing they have to deal with, so they're going to focus on the economy and taxes."

In a memo circulated among House members last week, Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, chairwoman of the Republican Conference, reminded her colleagues that "with the liberation of Iraq already underway, Americans are increasingly turning their attention toward domestic issues."

Anticipating that Democrats will attack Bush and Republicans for being "distracted by the war in Iraq" and neglecting domestic problems, the memo directs GOP lawmakers to talk as much as possible about Bush's economic agenda and its ability, as the president insists, to create jobs.

To be sure, lawmakers are using their time at home to show strong backing for U.S. forces overseas, touring military installations and attending troop rallies armed with information for constituents on how they can support the troops.

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