Election-year tactics on Hill

Democrats attack Bush on economy and Iraq, as GOP caters to voter concerns on highways, energy costs.

It's normal in a presidential election year that the fight for the White House casts a long shadow over what's possible on Capitol Hill. But this year, with soaring budget deficits leaving little prospect for new spending initiatives, the attention of lawmakers is likely to be even more fixed on the fight at the top of the ticket.

Democrats already are already hammering at what they see as weaknesses in the Bush presidency, especially fiscal irresponsibility and misleading assessments of everything from Iraq's weapons programs to the cost of a new prescription drug plan in Medicare. They are also bearing down on a number of ethics investigations involving GOP leaders or staff.

For Republicans, the endgame this session involves trying to pass a few things for their districts, especially a highway bill and a slimmed-down version of a new national energy strategy, which narrowly failed in the Senate last year. That could resonate with voters facing sticker stock for fuel.

For both parties, questions about the economy's ability to create jobs will be a central point for talk, if not action.

"If the presidential candidates are talking about Iraq or the economy, those are the issues to which you are going to have to respond," says Amy Walters, a congressional analyst for the Cook Report in Washington. "The hardest thing about being a [congressional] candidate in a presidential year is that you don't get to control the agenda you talk about. It's set at the top."

For Democrats, the long wait for a nominee to take the fight to the White House may be ending. The Democratic leadership will then shape congressional strategy around the national campaign.

Until President Bush's recent drop in the polls, Republicans expected a relatively easy ride into November elections. By the end of the last session of Congress, GOP leaders had already passed into law the big domestic issues they hoped to run on in November: a tax cut every year of the Bush presidency and a new prescription-drug benefit in Medicare.

Help for highways

But new scrutiny of the president's wartime leadership may be changing that calculation - and adding pressure on GOP lawmakers to beef up their record of accomplishment for states and districts before the November vote.

One of the most promising vehicles for such benefits is the reauthorization of highway bill, which is moving in both the House and Senate this week. The Senate is considering $318 billion for highways and public transportation over the next six years, some $62 billion more than the White House budget resolution. In the House the current bid is $375 billion.

"Transportation bills are big pork-barrel legislation, because everyone has roads," says Ron Rapaport, a political scientist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. And with Republicans controlling both the White House and Congress, it's Republicans who are most likely to take a hit for overspending.

President Bush, in a televised interview on Sunday, singled out the highway bill as "an interesting test of fiscal discipline on both sides of the aisle."

Under pressure from conservative activists, he has threatened to veto bills that break spending limits. So far, Bush has yet to veto a spending bill.

In a sign of how divisive this issue could become, GOP House leaders are planning a vote this week to extend federal road contracts four months, to allow more time to negotiate the terms of this bill. Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska, who is chairman of the House transportation panel, is proposing a hike in the federal gas tax to pay for higher spending.

Energy bill fight

Another bill likely to test GOP unity and resolve is the energy bill, which fell short by two votes in the Senate last year. Like the highway bill, support for energy legislation falls out on regional, not strictly partisan lines. New England Republicans balked at the emphasis on production rather than conservation - noting that there is little in the bill for consuming states.

In addition, the decision of Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) of Louisiana to step down this month as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee signals that prospects for a quick resolution of these issues within the party are not imminent. Mr. Tauzin had made the energy bill his major legislative priority. He retires at the end of the session to take a job on K Street as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry.

"Republicans are angry not so much because of fear of losing reelection - in most cases, they're pretty safe in the House - but because they became Republicans for a reason," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

"Many genuinely believe in limited government and low taxes, and they get very upset when they see a Republican departing from the smaller government path," he adds.

The budget deficit for fiscal year 2004 is expected to be a record $521 billion. The president has called for cutting the deficit in half in the next five years.

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