In 2002 election, Enron looms large

As lawmakers return to Hill, Democrats' major theme is, 'Is big business trustworthy?'

The return of Congress today marks the start of what promises to be one of the closest fights for control of the House and Senate ever - with all issues grist for Campaign 2002.

There's no lack of issues to scrap about, from tax cuts and budget deficits to dueling plans to revive the economy, save farmers, or help seniors pay for prescription drugs.

But no issue looms as large as the Enron debacle, which is already shifting the terms of the political debate - and election strategies - on Capitol Hill.

In private, Democrats say it allows them to criticize President Bush and the Republicans in a way that avoids the perception they are interfering with the war on terrorism. "Democrats are desperately looking for ways to criticize Republicans in ways that don't look unpatriotic," says a Democratic staffer.

At least eight congressional investigations into the political and business dealings of Houston-based Enron Corp. begin this month, guaranteeing that the firm and its spectacular collapse will remain in the news for much of Campaign 2002. The hearings also will keep squarely in view the question of whether Enron bought any influence in Washington for the $2.4 million it invested in the last election cycle.

Never mind that Democrats claimed a share of those contributions (about 1 in 4 of Enron's campaign dollars in the past 10 years went to Democrats, says the Center for Responsive Politics). Or that the Clinton White House had intervened on Enron's behalf. Abuse of corporate power, real or not, is a theme Democrats like to trumpet - and they'll to try to use it to buttress their claims on a range of issues coming before Congress, analysts say.

"Investigations aside, there are a number of policy areas where Enron should make a difference - and most of it to the detriment of the priorities of the Bush administration," says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

The Enron episode may influence the debate on issues like tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and campaign finance, he adds. "If the president decides he wants to use a significant part of his political capital now to push for drilling in ANWR, it is going to much harder post-Enron."

The Enron case may also give a push to the perennial debate over campaign finance, insiders say. House sponsors of a reform measure say they need just two more signatures to force a floor vote on their bill. The Senate passed its version of campaign-finance reform last April. It was derailed in the House over a procedural vote.

"Enron is the straw that will ... produce a fair vote on campaign-finance reform," predicts Rep. Martin Meehan (D) of Massachusetts, a sponsor of campaign-finance overhaul. Now, "campaign-finance reform isn't just an ethereal concept for people.... Now, you have thousands of employees who lost their life savings and millions of dollars poured into the political system."

Republicans, for their part, want to keep the focus on homeland security and Mr. Bush's war on terrorism. The president's approval ratings are still at a near-record 86 percent, and GOP analysts say congressional Republicans will use that to try to prevail on key agenda issues this session. The fact the Bush's ratings are so high also bodes well for Republicans' ability to win back seats in November, they say.

So far, Bush and GOP leaders have argued, credibly, that emerging budget problems this year can be attributed to the emergency costs of the war on terrorism. And Democrats remain deeply divided over the issue.

Twelve Senate Democrats voted for Bush's 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax-cut plan, and six are up for reelection. While Democra- tic leaders decry the tax cuts as fiscally irresponsible, only Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts has publicly called for repealing some of them.

For now, all agendas (except Enron) are on hold until the State of the Union address Jan 22. Then, most here expect a hard fight on the budget and economy to dominate. Democrats are planning an assault on the Bush budget, which is expected to include deficits and cuts in domestic programs. House Republicans may try again for an economic-stimulus package. Both plans the House previously approved were tilted toward business tax cuts.

On both the budget and the stimulus, Enron's shadow looms large. Before Enron, most Democrats objected to GOP tax-cut and budget proposals on grounds of fiscal responsibility. More recently, their press releases on everything from pipeline safety to prescription-drug reform share this theme: Can corporations be trusted to do the right thing? Democratic strategists are already working this theme into the 2002 campaign appeals.

"Their objective is to revive the oldest living stereotype in American politics: that Republicans are the party of big business," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, who notes that both parties rely on money from corporate America.

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