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Congress' post-recess agenda targets GOP core
McClatchy Newspapers


June 06, 2006

WASHINGTON - Gays, the flag, taxes and terrorists.

Anxious to retain their majority in this year's midterm elections, Republican congressional leaders plan to hit the ground running when they return from a long Memorial Day recess, with scheduled floor debates and votes over the next two weeks on tried-and-true issues that could reinvigorate their base and appeal to some swing voters.

In the Senate, which gets back to work on Monday, Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is scheduled to bring to the floor two proposed constitutional amendments. The first seeks to ban gay marriage across the country regardless of what individual states want to recognize. Another would give Congress the power to ban flag desecration, an action the courts have said the Constitution in its current form protects as a matter of free speech.




Frist and some other Senate Republicans also will push for a vote to eliminate the so-called estate tax. They will refer to it as the "death tax" and speak of its strain on family-owned farms and other businesses.

In the House, Republicans are planning an "Iraq debate" sometime during the month of June. That floor debate would give lawmakers from both parties the chance to say their piece about a war that has divided voters and become more unpopular. But Republicans are betting that merely having the debate - especially if they succeed in making it about the broader war on terror - will allow them to re-establish the GOP's reputation as the stronger party on national security and make Democrats who once supported the war and now want to get out look wishy-washy.

"Put it out there for the American people to see and hear, and let the chips fall where they may," said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. On how the two parties approach the war and national security, Madden said, "There is as stark a contrast as you can find."

Heading into the May recess, Senate Republicans were poised to fall short of the two-thirds vote needed to move ahead with the gay-marriage ban; the flag vote was uncertain; and with the estate tax, the question appeared to be whether a simple majority of the Senate would agree to doing away with it altogether or would opt for further reducing taxable rates, raising the exemption levels, or extending the status quo beyond a sunset date of 2011.

But the outcome of all of these votes may not be as crucial to Republicans as the debate leading up to them - and the fact that Democrats who oppose these plans would have to go on record against them in an election year.

"Those issues - gay marriage, the flag and the death tax - are not only hot-button conservative issues, but a clear majority of the public agrees on those," said political consultant Charlie Black.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean says the marriage-amendment vote amounted to scapegoating gays and lesbians for political gain.

"Democrats strongly oppose any attempt to write discrimination into law and are committed to fighting this hateful, divisive amendment," Dean said in a prepared statement.

Democrats willing to publicly oppose ending the estate tax likely will cast the Republicans' position as one that caters to the rich. A joint estimate by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution found that under the current rate structure, the estate tax applies to married couples with assets of $4 million or more, or about half of 1 percent of Americans who die each year.

"I think a lot of people are fooled, a lot of people think they will die and owe estate tax," said Diane Lim Rogers of Brookings. "But some people think even if today they don't have that kind of money, they aspire to one day having it or their children having it."

Republicans have been hurt this year by low public confidence in their leadership and a conservative base that is threatening to stay home this fall instead of voting.

Less than one-third of Americans believe Congress is doing a good job, according to polls, and a majority blames the party in power. Democrats could take back control of the 435-member House and 100-member Senate by picking up 15 and six seats, respectively. Low conservative turnout in the November elections could make that more likely.

Among their complaints, some conservative activists say Republicans courted them with promises to ban gay marriage and then strung them along. In recent months, the president's push to expand legal immigration with a new guest-worker program and give longtime illegal immigrants more opportunities for citizenship has rankled conservatives as well.

But between now and August, the time frame during which debate must be completed on most of the substantive legislation that will be considered this year, Republicans also are committed to taking up issues with the potential to distract or even hurt them.

One could come as early as next week. A plan by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, to give Native Hawaiians many of the same land and self-governance rights as Native Americans has been blocked in the Senate for several years and is opposed by many Republicans. But GOP consultants said Frist agreed to let it come up for a vote after Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada threatened to tie up other legislation important to the Republican leadership.

Another is stem-cell research. President Bush opposes expanding embryonic-stem-cell research, but the House last year voted to do just that and Frist, a physician, has committed to bringing similar Senate legislation to the floor before the August recess. The science divides the Republican Party, pitting those who believe it has the potential to cure diseases like cancer against those who believe that destroying embryos, even those fertility clinics would otherwise dispose of, amounts to murder.

Finally, there is immigration, and the question of whether House and Senate negotiators can agree to any plan between now and November to address border security, business demands for more cheap, temporary labor, and what to do with 12 million illegal immigrants already living in the country.

The Senate just before breaking for Memorial Day passed an immigration-reform package that would tighten border security but also expand guest-worker visas and give millions of undocumented workers already in the United States a right to seek citizenship. House Republicans had earlier passed an enforcement-only bill, and key leaders have said there is no way they will accept anything that looks like amnesty. Americans are divided on how Congress should act, but say Congress should act.

Several Republican consultants have said that as tempting as it might be to put off the issue for another year, that could backfire.

"We have to take it up sooner rather than later so people can see that we're dealing with it," said strategist Ed Rogers. "People are demanding some meaningful action."

"We've had some drift and some distractions and the calendar is really beginning to matter now," Rogers said. "We've got to get serious, quit making mistakes, and quit having bad luck."


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