Race for the White House inflames Capitol Hill debate

Presidential politics and hot-button issues

March 08, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the 27 short days that Congress has met this year, lawmakers have found time to vote on fetal rights and gun control. They have held hearings on a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. And they plan to crack down on indecency on television.

The reason for tackling so many hot-button issues so early on? Presidential politics.

The race for the White House is dominating nearly every congressional debate, from discussions on the federal budget to President Bush's call last month for an amendment barring same-sex marriages.

With a light schedule and a short list of must-do work, lawmakers have transformed the congressional agenda into a backdrop for presidential politicking. That has left little room for substantive lawmaking but plenty for partisanship.

It is a familiar dynamic for an election year, when lawmakers try to score points on their candidate's behalf. But the trend is especially striking because John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is a sitting senator.

The trend is not confined to such emotionally charged cultural issues as abortion or gun control, which energize both parties' bases. Republicans and Democrats plan to frame most action this year - on spending bills, tax cuts, legal reform and other items - as part of the fight for the White House.

"The presidential race may play out, in part, on the floor of the United States Senate," said Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican. "It's almost inevitable."

`A paralyzing effect'

Election years are typically some of the least productive on Capitol Hill. Leaders schedule little work and long breaks to give lawmakers, many of whom are campaigning for re-election themselves, lots of face-time with voters back home. Politics - always a subtext for congressional action - becomes an overpowering force.

A presidential election "often has a paralyzing effect on Congress," said Darrell M. West, a political science professor at Brown University. "There are so many partisan controversies that the House and Senate find it almost impossible to act."

When they do, West said, "every major issue Congress is considering is right in the middle of the presidential campaign."

That's true of the budget plan Congress begins considering this week. It will pit Republicans who want to impose spending limits and to make Bush's tax cuts permanent against Democrats who want to increase spending and to reverse the Bush tax cuts, which they blame for swelling the budget deficit.

To push through their budget plan, Republicans have cast Kerry - who says he would repeal most of Bush's tax cuts and spend more on health care and education - in a starring role.

After Kerry's Super Tuesday victories, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, declared that the senator's budget plan "does not add up."

There is even talk among House GOP leaders, aides said, of putting together a "Kerry budget" that they could use to point out flaws in his plan.

"We can't just adjourn for the year and go after John Kerry - we have to govern," said John Feehery, Hastert's spokesman. "But we can, as we govern, point out our differences and the problems with John Kerry's positions."

Republican leaders deny that they are allowing the presidential race to dictate the congressional agenda. Bush's priorities are theirs, they say, and therefore it is logical for them to push legislation that dovetails with the president's campaign message.

"We're going to schedule legislation that we think is important to this country moving forward, and if [Democrats] want to play politics with it, we will respond," said Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Still, congressional Republicans are scarcely hesitating to take advantage of the legislative process to drive home Bush's message and to rebut Kerry's.

"It's an open secret that [Kerry is] a U.S. senator, and he will use the floor as a platform for his campaign," said Robert Traynham, a Santorum aide. "We will certainly use the floor to augment the president's agenda as well."

Bush campaign officials have met with Republican aides to plot themes in what Traynham called "an unprecedented level of communication."

Democrats are just as determined to use Capitol Hill to bolster Kerry's campaign.

"Both sides, on every issue, will try to position the votes and the debate so it helps their party's presidential candidate - it's just natural," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. "Every time [Republicans] get close to the economy and jobs, we're going to have some very interesting discussions on the floor."

Democratic congressional aides say they are working to create an "echo chamber" to amplify their candidate's message, by proposing amendments that parallel his policies, conducting news conferences and using the floor to defend Kerry.

Kerry's campaign has tapped Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Rep. Edward J. Markey, both of Massachusetts, as its point men on Capitol Hill, said Stephanie Cutter, a campaign spokeswoman.

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