In politics, it's about 'security'

From oil drilling to the budget, parties cast national-security impact as central.

From perennial budget battles to fights over the environment, official Washington is reframing some of its biggest policy disputes around the buzzword of "national security."

It's a phrase that, since Sept. 11, has played largely in Republicans' favor. Presidents typically surge in authority during times of national crisis. President Bush has been attempting to borrow this commander-in-chief aura for his fiscal plans, too, arguing that tax cuts are vital to building "economic security" at home.

For Democrats, the conventional wisdom before the midterm elections was to stand with the president on national security, and battle on anything else. But that formula took a bruising in November, when Democrats lost control of the Senate and lost seats in the House.

The first days of the 108th Congress signal that that strategy is out. An unusually partisan opening to the new legislative session included pointed attacks on the White House on questions ranging from the security of nuclear power plants to budget and tax plans that Democrats say shortchange homeland security.

"Safety of the American people and the soundness of our economy are the issues," says new House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi - a theme other Democrats quickly picked up.

The newly empowered Republican majority is also framing its agenda around security. GOP lawmakers are gearing up for a fresh assault on some environmental regulations, on the grounds that they undermine the nation's capacity to fight a war.

Environment committees in both houses, moreover, plan to reintroduce versions of the president's national energy strategy to boost domestic production. This, too, will be cast as a response to the needs of national security - arguing that Arctic reserves could cut dependency on Arabian oil.

"You can sell a lot of policies if you wrap it in khaki," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna college in Claremont, Calif. "Now that we're on a war footing again, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to tie just about any initiative to the war effort, and both sides are doing it."

Using national defense to move big domestic agendas is not new. In 1956, President Eisenhower won congressional backing for a national interstate highway system, citing the needs of national defense. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 prompted a sweeping national student loan program to produce more mathematicians and scientists.

Many of the big-ticket items on this year's congressional agenda are already being reframed with an eye to national security issues, beginning with spending bills left over from the 107th Congress.

Bush is asking the Congress to hold spending in the nine remaining appropriation bills to $385 billion. Senate Democrats had proposed spending nearly $10 billion above that cap, including more money for droughts and wildfires, education, worker training, and voting systems.

But in defending the extra dollars, they now call special attention to homeland security spending - and to GOP cuts for first responders and border security.

"What makes this situation unusual is that the threat is so vague, especially with the war on terrorism, that it can be used by either party in a way to promote their agenda," says Ron Rapoport, a political scientist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

THE debates are not merely rhetorical. For both sides, the motives blend longstanding ideology and post-9/11 urgency, as well as shrewd political positioning. But analysts note that a critique of national defense has been a tough sell for Democrats, especially with a popular president as commander in chief. A new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll puts Bush's approval index at 63.0, high for a midterm president, although down from his soaring ratings after 9/11. Polls often give the GOP a 20-point edge over Democrats on defense issues.

In addition, important elements of the Democratic base typically oppose military action.

But the focus on homeland defense is opening new avenues for Democrats to push security as a theme. The first bill introduced into the Senate by Democrats this year - typically, a signal of legislative priorities - is a bill to authorize new homeland security programs. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut launched a presidential bid this week promising Americans that "I am ready to protect their security, revive their economy, and uphold their values." Senator Lieberman was one of the first to call for a new Department of Homeland Security.

Other Democrats target what they dub "big holes in our security blanket" at ports, water treatment plants, or borders, even as they note the dangers of exposing weaknesses to potential terrorists. Last week, Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Hillary Clinton of New York chided the administration for failing to address the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to a terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, Republicans are repackaging key elements of their agenda around national security issues. Republicans describe President Bush's $674 billion, 10-year stimulus proposal in these terms. "He has made economic security for all Americans a pillar of his administration," says Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico. Some Democrats say the plan drains resources from the national defense effort.

On the House side, House Republicans are refocusing their annual assault on environmental regulations around the issue of military readiness. Features of laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act have been used to restrict combat training in some areas, they say.

"You can't even accidentally hit a migratory bird with an aircraft," says Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who promises a close look at environmental rules that get in the way of "the rights and needs of our military to train."

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