Congress avoids work, plays politics

Congress may be facing a heavy legislative load as it returns from its annual monthlong August recess, but the business at hand Tuesday was nothing more than politics as usual.

Reports Andrew Taylor of The Associated Press:

Congress immediately turned to politics rather than its bulging legislative load as lawmakers returned to Washington Tuesday for a brief pre-election session.

"Under the Bush administration and this Republican Congress, America is less safe, facing greater threats and unprepared for the dangerous world in which we live," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

At the same time, Republicans controlling Congress promised a pre-election focus on national security — a traditional GOP strength with voters — in their struggle to retain House and Senate majorities with political winds blowing against them.

The drive by Capitol Hill GOP leaders coincides with a White House effort to portray Democrats as retreating on Iraq and the war on terror.

"Democrats have urged retreat from Iraq," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said at a news conference. "And that’s where this whole theme of ‘cut and run’ has come up again and again."

The Senate reconvened after a monthlong recess with Frist laying out an ambitious agenda: the defense and homeland security budgets, port security and legislation to authorize military tribunals for terrorists and warrantless wiretapping of them.

Frist called on colleagues for "bipartisan support on each of these issues" — a necessity for success in a chamber known for its slow pace. And that sluggishness was on display Tuesday as the official order of business, the Pentagon budget, gave way to a series of off-topic floor speeches.

According to AP-Ipsos polls conducted in August, the public gives Democrats slightly better marks when asked which party would do a better job of protecting them. A survey taken Aug. 15-17 gave Democrats a 37-32 edge on the question while a poll taken one week earlier gave Democrats a 42-35 advantage.

Bush stayed on the offensive Tuesday, giving the second in a series of speeches aimed at bolstering public support for the war in Iraq and the ongoing campaign against terrorism.

"Bin laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them," Bush said in an address claiming progress against al-Qaida but warning that terrorism remains a grave threat. "The question is `Will we listen? Will we pay attention to what these evil men say?’"

Democrats are not shying from the political battle over terrorism, Iraq and national security, saying that the Iraq war is in fact harming efforts to defeat terrorism.

The Democrats released a study they say shows the United States is less secure today than before Bush took office. Citing research done by the nonpartisan Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, the report says the number of al-Qaida members has jumped from 20,000 in 2001 to 50,000 today.

"The truth is the president’s policies have not worked and have not made us safer," said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del.

Senate Democrats promise to use the ongoing debate on the defense budget to force a "no-confidence" debate on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but Republicans are certain to use procedural tactics to block a yes-or-no vote.

"The ‘Defeatocrats’ want to want to bring the troops home, want to put their tail between their legs," said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "It will do nothing but embolden terrorists."

Meanwhile, House leaders are considering a last-minute move to appeal to voters by making permanent some of President Bush’s more popular tax cuts, said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. The most likely candidates are the $1,000 child tax credit and the reduction in the penalty that causes married couples to pay more tax than they would as two single individuals. Both tax reductions will expire at the end of 2010 without congressional action.

No decision to go forward on the tax cuts has been made, Boehner said. But on a subject dear to the Democrats, he promised there would be no stand-alone vote to increase the minimum wage before Congress adjourns.

The most significant bill before the House this week is legislation advancing Thursday to prohibit the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

Hill watchers expect little real legislative action as members of both the House and Senate continue political posturing until they adjourn for the campaigns.