Democrats Seek High-Note Finish

Posted July 23, 2007 at 6:26pm

With all their success so far at slowing down the Democratic-led Congress, Republicans may hit a politically difficult patch during the next two weeks as Democrats tee up a series of feel-good measures designed to protect the country from terrorist attacks, overhaul Congressional lobbying and ethics rules, and, most of all, help sick children. [IMGCAP(1)]

With the minefield laid, even Republicans acknowledge they may have a hard time preventing Democrats from coasting into the August recess with a few notable accomplishments.

Indeed, the political perils of being blamed for blocking Homeland Security funding and an overhaul of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program along with a strong desire for a break from the partisan acrimony are weighing heavily on Senate Republicans in particular, as they contemplate when and whether to force a showdown over a controversial U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee.

“That and the jet-fume strategy. People are going to want to get out of here,” said one senior Senate GOP aide of why Democrats might have an easier time passing measures over the next two weeks.

In addition, most of the bills slated for the House and Senate floors — the Homeland Security appropriations bill, SCHIP, a conference on implementing the terrorism prevention recommendations of the 9/11 commission, and a long-sought rewrite of lobbying and ethics rules — enjoy wide bipartisan support.

“This holds the potential to be a dramatically different two weeks in the Senate when juxtaposed with the last six months,” said one senior Senate Democratic staffer.

This week’s Senate Homeland Security measure will figure prominently into Democratic messaging over the next two weeks and the August break. With the bill expected to pass late this week, Democrats on Monday circulated talking points touting the new spending in the bill and Democrats’ efforts to move the measure.

Although Republicans could look to include new border security funding, it is unclear how significant that issue will end up being. Neither party is looking to reopen the immigration debate.

Republicans, however, are unlikely to use the bill as a venue for attacking Democrats on earmark reforms — another positive sign for the speedy passage of the bill.

Democrats — anticipating sending the 9/11 bill to the president, having their recent minimum-wage increase take effect this week and having both chambers pass sweeping higher education bills — said they likely would be able to go into the August recess with a strong list of achievements to tout to voters who recently gave Congress a dismal 14 percent approval rating.

The 9/11 bill likely will be the centerpiece for Democrats on both sides of the Capitol given that its passage and potential to be signed by the president would give them a strong national security message.

The 9/11 measure, coupled with action in both chambers on the Homeland Security spending bill, “will be a one-two punch,” the senior Senate Democratic staffer said. The 9/11 commission conference report could be ready for action this week, aides indicated.

House and Senate Democrats appeared less certain about the timing for a deal on a lobbying and ethics overhaul, but they expressed optimism that it would be sent to the president by the beginning of August. Democratic leaders in both chambers currently are negotiating the details of a final bill, and while they continue to struggle with a number of aspects of the measure — most notably campaign contribution “bundling” provisions — they remain optimistic that it will be completed before August.

While passage in the House is expected to be easy, the terrain in the Senate is less clear. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and a band of conservative reformers have vowed to attempt a filibuster if Democrats change a set of Senate-specific earmark reforms in the bill.

Although Senate GOP leaders seem unlikely to back a filibuster of an ethics bill, particularly if it comes in the waning days before the August recess, they could face a conservative rebellion if they turn their backs on DeMint, who has become increasingly defiant of his leaders.

Meanwhile, Democrats plan to end this work period with a tug at the nation’s heartstrings as both chambers seek to expand the SCHIP program to more uninsured children. Though a number of Republicans oppose such an expansion because they say it would open the door to socialized medicine, Senate Democrats already are salivating at the notion of passing it with a potentially veto-proof margin by the end of next week.

Even on the Iraq War, Democrats are feeling stronger than they have in the past few months.

“The best thing we can do is show the American people that we’re focused on [the war],” said Stacey Farnen Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “We’re putting pressure on the president, pressure on Republicans. … It’s more a continuous application of pressure.”

Senate Republicans said Democrats might see more cooperation in the next few weeks because of the bipartisanship with which most of the bills have been crafted.

“We’re hoping we can go at least one bill without a political amendment on Iraq,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “If they don’t play politics with it, it shouldn’t take too long [to pass bills]. That’s how you get an accomplishment.”

Republicans have threatened to further slow down the Senate chamber over Democrats’ opposition to the nomination of Leslie Southwick to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.