Congress presses to finish before election-year begins

GOP defectors in the Senate challenge White House on issues ranging from Iraq budget to energy bill to Medicare.

Republicans may control the House and Senate, but that doesn't make things easy for GOP leaders who are pressing to get to "yes" on issues ranging from Medicare to energy policy, plus the biggest war-related spending bill in US history.

Republicans want a track record on such key issues to take to the voters next November. But moderates and conservatives do not necessarily see eye to eye on what that record should be.

That, as much as Democratic opposition, is the subtext for a crucial legislative push that will happen in the next few weeks. For important bills, the window of opportunity may be closing, since Congress will soon go on a holiday recess - and return in full election-battle mode.

"We could be looking at a serious anti-incumbent year from top to bottom," says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International. "We may have parties running the most partisan campaigns since 1984, while at the same time voters may be converging toward the center and saying: Just do something."

It's deep backroom politics, and few Democrats have been invited into the room. Deadlines come and go. What's constant is the drive to produce something that can survive a vote in both the House and Senate this year, and blunt potential campaign charges that Republicans can control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and yet "do nothing." But the biggest problem for Republicans is finding a line on complex issues that can keep their own members on board - or win over enough Democrats to make up for the defectors.

Senate moderates forced President Bush to drop his proposed $750 billion tax cut to $350 billion. Last week, they ran over strong White House opposition to convert part of the $87 billion for postwar Iraq to a loan. And their support will be critical in getting Medicare and energy compromises to the president's desk.

"The president doesn't have a problem with the House, where Republicans have centralized power more so than it has been for 50 years. The problem is the Senate," says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "The South has realigned, and most members now come from safe districts and have a more conservative position on the energy bill, Medicare, means testing, and the $87 billion supplemental. It's the moderates he's having problems with," he says.

The most immediate priority for the White House is getting congressional approval for $87 billion in new spending for Iraq. The public opposes spending that much on a nation with the world's second-largest oil reserves at a time when the US economy is in a slump. Despite a strong White House push for packaging all the money as a grant - and for wrapping up negotiations before a donors' conference in Madrid on Oct. 23 - eight Senate Republicans voted to convert some $10 billion in reconstruction assistance to a loan. Many House GOP moderates said that they, too, would have supported the loan option, but their leadership didn't allow a vote. "I like the Senate tack, and would have voted it if we had the chance," says Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan, who just returned from a trip to Iraq.

Armed with much stronger procedural tools to control votes on the floor, House Republican leaders say they will delete the Senate loan provision in conference, expected to begin next week.

"In the end, this package is important enough and the need for it is immediate, so whatever emerges from conference will be able to pass the Senate," says Amy Call, a spokeswoman for Senate majority leader Bill Frist. But Senate Democrats say it's a risky move that could backfire.

Meanwhile, GOP leaders are pushing for a rapid conclusion of complex negotiations on an overhaul of the nation's energy policy. Unusually, Republicans have excluded Democrats from deliberations over the first draft of a compromise. The deal has been worked out first by the two GOP chairmen, then shared with Republican conferees. Only after Republicans have reached consensus is the draft released to Democrats and the press.

"There is a danger of trying to do it all by yourself," says Bill Wicker, a spokesman for Democrats on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The battle over how to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare is even more divisive - and a hot prospect for Democrats to use in the 2004 campaign should the effort fail.

House and Senate conferees say they have reached agreement on a drug discount card and means testing. A key compromise involves a federal fall back, if private plans fail to provide services. It is backed by GOP moderates and Democrats, but opposed by many conservatives.

In the end, success depends on striking the right balance. Senate majority leader Frist assigned himself to the Medicare conference - a signal of how personally he is identified with success on this issue.

But it may be the president who has the biggest stake in the outcome. Concern over the failure to pass a prescription drug benefit is already eating into the president's ratings with seniors, says pollster Zogby: "He has a right to be scared."

While presidents can achieve things in an election year - note President Clinton's welfare reform just before the 1996 election - it's rare. And, increasingly, the sense in this Congress is that if a record is to be made for Republicans to take to the voters next November, it's in the next few weeks.

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