With only a month of legislating before the fall elections, Congress and the White House are bearing down on the issue most likely to determine control of the House and Senate: who can best protect national security.
Both sides of the aisle start off with an edge. For the White House and congressional Republicans, it's the fact that there has not been a terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. Their focus: border security, defense spending, and domestic terrorist surveillance.
For Democrats, it's the fact that Iraq seems to be moving into civil war – and is a catalyst for recruiting, rather than disabling, terrorist networks. Instead of calling for a fixed withdrawal date, they are now rallying behind criticism of civilian defense leadership, especially Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Unlike the previous two congressional elections, analysts say this one will be settled not so much by rhetoric on national security, but by the facts on the ground, especially in Iraq.
"Any time the Democrats focus on the lack of progress in Iraq – and personalize it in Rumsfeld – it plays to their favor. But when Republicans stress that there hasn't been an attack on the homeland and we want to use aggressive surveillance to prevent future attacks, it plays to their favor," says Marshall Wittmann, a former GOP activist now with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).
"That's what both sides will be doing over the next two months," he adds.
The locus of that debate will be Capitol Hill this month. With the number of days for legislating dwindling to about a dozen, GOP leaders in both houses have the biggest say in how those days are used.
Senate Republicans are focusing the agenda on showcasing their record on national security. "From Georgia to California and each stop in-between, the people I met wanted reassurance that when they board a plane, that plane will be safe," said Senate majority leader Bill Frist as the Senate returned on Tuesday. "This week we will hold [the Senate] to that as we continue to debate defense appropriations."
Facing the need to pass 12 spending bills before they recess, Republicans aim to complete only those related to national security. They plan to approve stop-gap funding for the others, until they can take them up at an expected lame duck session after the November elections.
In addition, Senate Republicans plan to take up a new bill authorizing the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program. The White House ran into heavy criticism earlier last year when it leaked out that the NSA had wiretapped alleged terror suspects in the US without seeking a court order. Whether to highlight the controversy is a tough call for Democrats.
"Many Democrats are uneasy about criticizing the administration on surveillance. Cooler heads within the Democratic Party are trying to prevent that from happening. They want to fight on the dissatisfaction with Iraq and not on domestic surveillance," says Mr. Wittmann of the DLC.
In a bid to shape the public debate, the White House released its updated national strategy for combating terrorism on the morning Congress returned. The 23-page document calls for setting standards to expand "partnership capacity" in the war on terror and also acknowledges setbacks on the ground.
"The ongoing fight for freedom in Iraq has been twisted by terrorist propaganda as a rallying cry," concludes the report. Also: "Increasingly sophisticated use of the Internet and media has enabled our terrorist enemies to communicate, recruit, train, rally support, proselytize, and spread their propaganda without risking personal contact."
Democrats are divided over whether to push for a deadline for pullout from Iraq. While public support for the war continues to deteriorate, many Democrats in close races are avoiding taking a stand on the war over concerns that they'll be labeled as "cut and run" politicians.
There's also a strong internal debate within the Democratic Party over how hard to fight the Bush administration over its NSA surveillance program, which was declared unconstitutional last month by a US district judge.
House Republicans say their priorities for September include authoring the president's terrorist surveillance program, "designed to identify and disrupt terror cells planning attacks against the US," authorizing military tribunals for suspected terrorists, and strengthening border security.
In a bid to shift the focus to broader domestic concerns, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi announced on Friday that Democrats will oppose adjournment this month until Congress has also acted on domestic concerns, including the costs of health, college tuition, and gasoline.
Ms. Pelosi is also calling on Republicans to implement all the recommendations of the 9/11 commission on fighting terrorism. She also renewed her call for Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to resign.
Defense analysts say that debate is shifting toward the Bush administration's credibility, especially in dealing with the facts on the ground in Iraq. The revised National Strategy for Combating Terrorism is "a political effort to highlight the importance of the war on terrorism," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But there are real questions about what any of this means, particularly when we talk about working with our allies," he adds. "And when you look at the strategy for interagency coordination, we've had serious problems in implementing this, but the strategy doesn't suggest anything new."
Senate Democrats sounded the same theme in a briefing Tuesday.
"It's the same speeches they've given before," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, commenting on the president's rhetorical push on national security. But "all the speeches in the world don't change what's happening on the ground in Iraq."