Democratic jabs carry opportunity, risk

Criticism of Bush on Cuba, demands for energy documents signal shriller tone.

After a sharp backlash from constituents, Democrats on Capitol Hill are revising their criticisms of the White House – but they aren't curbing their tongues.

No more Watergate-era jabs about Sept. 11, like "What did the president know? And when did he know it?" Instead, even the president's harshest critics reverted this week to some variation on: "What didn't the president know? And why didn't he know it?" The shift shows that they are well aware that the public will punish partisan sniping at a time of national peril.

But even as President Bush begins a high-profile tour of Europe, Democrats are signaling that the unspoken taboo on criticizing White House competence, especially in areas of foreign policy, is over. This week, Democrats set up a showdown with President Bush over Cuba policy. In the Senate, opponents fought to sharply limit the president's bid for more authority to negotiate trade agreements.

Yesterday, Senate Democrats also broke out one of the biggest guns they have in face-offs with the executive branch – the power to subpoena documents – in a bid to force the administration to release its contacts with companies like Enron as it developed its energy policy last spring.

In the early days after the Sept. 11 attacks, strategists urged congressional Democrats to fully back President Bush on the war on terror, to avoid fights over foreign policy, and focus opposition on domestic issues like healthcare, Social Security, and education funding.

But with November elections rapidly approaching, many Democrats are taking a more aggressive stance by recasting foreign policy issues as essentially domestic. Asked why Democrats are choosing now to take on the White House on issues like trade and Cuba, a senior Democratic aide responds: "We're seeing some opportunities. Trade used to be about the president's ability to conduct foreign policy, now it's about jobs."

Gloves coming off?

For months, the Senate leadership refused to take up the Bush administration's Trade Promotion Authority bill, even though it was widely expected to pass in the Senate. The bill, which limits Congress's ability to amend trade deals negotiated by the president, passed the House by one vote last December. And even strong opponents of the bill viewed the Senate as a slam dunk for free traders.

"It's never been an option that it won't get out of the Senate," says Jock Nash, a leading lobbyist for the textile industry, which opposes the measure. The industry, instead, has hoped to defeat the bill in the House, where a new vote would be needed after the House-passed bill is reconciled with a Senate one.

But the Senate debate has slogged on since late April, with opponents in the steel industry winning concessions, such as protecting antidumping laws, that supporters say could render the bill pointless. A final Senate vote could come today.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration defends trade as a key to winning friends and fighting terrorists, including trade concessions for countries like Pakistan that help in the war on terrorism. "It's going to be important for our friends around the world to see this commitment to trade," President Bush said as he boarded a flight to Germany yesterday.

A similar battle is shaping up over US policy toward Cuba. A six-day visit to Cuba earlier this month by former President Jimmy Carter put the issue of 40-year-old US sanctions back on the congressional agenda. In a response to that visit this week, President Bush reaffirmed a policy of economic isolation until Cuba allows free elections and a more open economy.

Administration officials also say there is a link with the war on terrorism. On Tuesday, State Department official Otto Reich told a Senate panel that Cuba had the capacity to support a biological weapons program and that it had sold sensitive technology to states that sponsor terrorism.

Bills on Cuba embargo

But congressional opponents, backed by powerful farm groups, are gearing up for votes on easing the embargo, including allowing US banks to finance agricultural sales to Cuba. In a briefing this week, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California appeared with a box of California rice and dried beans.

"As someone who represents a state of 35 million people, We want to sell those products to the people of Cuba," she said. Farm-Belt Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota is also sponsoring legislation to open Cuban markets to US produce. And Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut says he already has 26 cosponsors on a bill to ease sanctions. The president promises to veto any such legislation.

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