By Thomas Ferraro
Republican lawmakers will spend their month-long vacation trying to dispel criticism of a "do-nothing" U.S. Congress, ease concerns about the Iraq war and persuade unhappy voters to re-elect them in November.
"For this summer vacation, re-election is job one," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor who tracks congressional races. "Many Republicans are scared, and they should be."
The Senate took off early on Friday, a week after the House of Representatives left town, uncertain whether either chamber would still be in Republican hands next year.
Many Democratic and Republican lawmakers, particularly those in leadership roles, are forgoing sun and fun for town-hall meetings and campaign speeches as they jockey for position before the November 7 election.
Dogged by the increasingly violent Iraq war, one of their lowest approval ratings in decades, high-profile legislative setbacks and the unpopularity of President George W. Bush, Republicans are scrambling to hold onto Congress.
Opinion polls show most Americans believe the nation is headed in "the wrong direction," and Democrats argue it’s time for voters to give them the reins of power.
Democrats criticize a "do-nothing Congress," which has spent much of its time on doomed measures, like one to ban gay marriage, merely to rally the Republicans’ conservative base. Republicans accuse Democrats of obstructionism.
Ethan Siegal of the Washington Exchange, which tracks politics and legislation for institutional investors, said, "This Congress hasn’t done much of anything," and both sides should be blamed for playing politics.
RARE VICTORY ON PENSIONS
House Majority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, brushed off the "do-nothing" label, saying: "We have had a very good year. Is there more to do? There always is."
The Senate recessed after a rare major victory and another defeat. It passed a bill to overhaul the private pension system. But on a separate measure, Democrats blocked their own goal of raising the minimum wage after Republicans added a tax break for the rich to it.
"I would rather have won. But over the next four weeks we’ll see how it plays" with voters, said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who plans to retire from Congress in January.
Democrats deemed the tax break ploy a political stunt, and added it to their list of Congressional failures.
Others include Congress’ inability so far to revamp immigration laws, overhaul the Social Security retirement program, clean up how it does business in the wake of scandals and even agree on a budget for fiscal 2007.
Republicans hail its successes, such as renewing the 1965 Voting Rights Act and anti-terrorism USA Patriot Act, confirmation of two U.S. Supreme Court justices and new free-trade accords.
"This will be a challenging environment for us," admitted Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, head of the House Republican campaign committee. But he vowed, "The House Republican majority will return."
In the 100-member Senate, controlled by Republicans since 2003, Democrats need a net gain of six seats to take control.
Democrats are seen as having a better chance in the 435-member House, in Republican hands since 1995. Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats there.
Democrats are running on a platform including calls to begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, increase the minimum wage, upgrade health care and make college more affordable.
Republicans aim much of their fire at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat positioned to become House speaker if Democrats take control, describing her as an out-of-touch liberal.
"I’m not surprised by the personal attacks," said Pelosi, who plans to campaign for Democrats in 12 states this month. "We are proposing a new direction."