Congress plays security card


Lawmakers in the US Congress returned this week from their summer hiatus for four frantic weeks dominated by security issues, before breaking to campaign for November’s midterm elections.

As the Senate got underway Tuesday, with the House to resume business Wednesday, the Republican-controlled US legislature cleared its calendar to focus on security matters.

"I’ve set an aggressive agenda for the remainder of this session that focuses on fighting and winning the war on terror," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said on the chamber floor.

During the previous two congressional elections, national security concerns have been Republicans’ trump card, allowing them to eke out victories over rival Democrats historically seen by US voters as soft on defense and terrorism issues.

Now, down badly in the polls ahead of the November 7 balloting, Republicans appeared ready to use their reliable ace card again, taking to the airways and holding press conferences extolling administration inroads against worldwide terror threats.

"It’s not a quirk of fate or an accident that we haven’t been attacked again here since 9/11," Republican Senator Mitch McConnell Tuesday told Fox television.

Democrats predicted however, that Republicans’ tried and true maneuver would not work this year, as public disaffection with the governing party grows.

"They’ve run this play one too many times," Senate Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid said at a press conference Tuesday.

"It’s the same speeches that they’ve given before. And all the speeches in the world do not change what’s going on on the ground in Iraq."

Frist said Senate debate would begin by focusing on a 453 billion dollar defense spending bill and a 32 billion homeland security bill, but said the Senate would look at a number of other domestic security matters as well.

"We need to strengthen port security. After months of negotiations on this critical issue, it’s time to act," the Republican Senate leader said.

He added that the Senate also would look at ways to bolster a key US terrorist intelligence program by modernizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and address the Supreme Court decision on military commissions for enemy combatants.

The focus on security will likely crescendo next week as both houses mark the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks — never far from the minds of Americans newly skittish about their personal safety, and considered a key factor in recent Republican election victories.

On the back burner until after the election are a long menu of agenda items, from immigration reform to raising the federal minimum wage to a host of federal government spending bills.

Democrats made clear Tuesday they would not allow the charges that they are weak on security concerns to go unanswered.

As Congress resumed its work, Democrats issued a scathing report on the US administration’s management of the global war on terror, concluding that Americans have become less safe during President George W. Bush’s tenure.

Democrats also called Tuesday on the US administration to produce a quarterly "honest and candid assessment" about whether sectarian violence in Iraq has boiled over into a full-scale civil war, and outline steps being taken to protect US troops there.

And during the this week’s debate on the defense spending bill, they said they plan to introduce legislation pressing Bush to sack Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"Let’s get a fresh face over at the Department of Defense," Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, author of the largely symbolic measure, said Tuesday.

Bush has remained loyal to Rumsfeld despite repeated calls by lawmakers and recently retired senior US military officers for the defense secretary to step down. Chief White House Tony Snow on Tuesday reaffirmed the president’s support for Rumsfeld.

"Creating Don Rumsfeld as a bogeyman may make for good politics but would make for very lousy strategy at this time," he said.

Snow added that lawmakers should focus their efforts on efforts to "win the war on terror in a way that is going to make not only America safer, but also the rest of the world safer, so that democracy can take firm root throughout the globe."