The tension-filled halls of Congress


To walk the halls of Congress these days is to feel the tension. Republicans attack Democrats as unpatriotic for not being on board with President Bush’s demand for more authority. Democrats accuse Republicans of being power-mad.

Sigh. Another month and a half or so until the Nov. 7 elections.

Throwing down the trump card that worked in 2004, Republicans desperate to keep the House and Senate insist that November is all about national security. Democrats argue that November’s voting is about the economy, the disappearing middle class, affordable health care, the war in Iraq and GOP incompetence.

To judge from the public’s apparent mood after the recent primaries, voters are unhappy about the war but uneasy about turning their backs on Bush or his demand for new authority to deal with suspected terrorists, even if that means legalizing domestic eavesdropping.

Voters so far seem disinclined to dump Republican or Democratic incumbents just for the sake of dumping them. They seem to be more concerned about warily weighing options and looking at the merits, experience and opinions of individual candidates rather than "throwing all the bums out" or "sending a message" to either party.

But the tension on Capitol Hill is not just about the elections. There are clear battles of conscience being fought _ openly _ on both sides of the aisle.

Liberal Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who narrowly won a primary challenge, is balking at rubberstamping John Bolton as Bush’s U.N. envoy. Even though the national Republican Party bailed Chafee out by supporting him against a conservative GOP challenger, Chafee thinks the abrasive Bolton is the wrong man at the wrong time for the diplomatic job.

(So did Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who helped prevent Bolton from getting confirmed last year. That led Bush to appoint Bolton during a congressional recess. Now, with Bolton up again for a vote, Voinovich says he’s changed his mind and now supports Bolton.)

On the Democratic left, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who wants to be the next president, is trying to figure out how to reconcile her vote for the war in Iraq with her belief that the administration has bungled the war. If she recants her vote on the grounds that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and had no weapons of mass destruction, she risks alienating the independents she needs to have a chance at the White House. She wants to be seen as principled, but not at the cost of being labeled as a hawk or a dove.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, decided not to renounce his support for the war in Iraq and was defeated in his Democratic primary bid. He is now running as an independent to keep his seat, infuriating former colleagues.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is more conservative than many think and also wants to be the next president. Nonetheless, he is trying to thwart Bush’s desire to restrict civil liberties through the legalization of warrantless wiretapping and e-mail-peeking.

McCain also wants to keep the White House from chucking the common interpretation of the Geneva Conventions governing the care of war prisoners, arguing that by telling enemies to "do as we say, not as we do," captured U.S. soldiers would be put at enormous risk.

His Republican co-conspirators are Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They argue passionately that if Congress follows Bush’s demands and decriminalizes the "degradation, humiliation, physical and mental brutalization" of prisoners, Americans too will be treated barbarically when captured.

They are opposed by Senate GOP leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who wants to be the next president but who sees his political career going down in flames if he can’t deliver the Senate for Bush.

You can watch the lawmakers squirming and listen to the arguing _ specious, tired and otherwise _ on C-SPAN in upcoming days.

And at a campaign event in your hometown, you can watch the squirming and listen to the arguing in person as candidates debate whether the war in Iraq is a legitimate front in the war on terror, if the GOP-led Congress has done anything worthwhile or whether those who quarrel with Bush are traitors.

The name-calling and finger-pointing ("You’re soft on national security." "No, you are.") will taper off Nov. 7 when politicians hold their breath while we vote. But on Nov. 8, the squabbling will begin again as the presidential race for 2008 gets under way.

Hey, it’s the American way!

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)