Business As Usual?

Despite War Clouds, Members Say Agenda Will Remain the Same

Posted March 18, 2003 at 6:36pm

It appears that the Congressional agenda will change very little as a result of the impending war with Iraq. What is changing, however, is the rhetoric.

As both chambers take up their budget resolutions this week, Republicans and Democrats are each using the new issue of war costs to bolster their old arguments about federal spending priorities.

“The war does point out some obvious things,” said one House GOP leadership aide. “One is that there is a greater need to restrain nonsecurity spending. This also better highlights that we need less reliance on foreign oil.”

That rationale will likely be a key Republican talking point in the coming weeks, as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) pushes committee chairmen to finish their markups of a comprehensive energy bill so a measure can be ready for the floor by the beginning of April.

Some Republicans are also insisting that war requires Congress to pass the president’s $726 billion tax cut. When combined with the actual cost of waging the war, the tax cut could create a $400 billion federal deficit this year.

“What we do want to happen is that when our men and women [in the military] return, they return to a growing economy,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

Republicans have been arguing for months that the tax cut will stimulate the lagging economy, while Democrats charge that it will increase deficits to dangerous levels and actually imperil economic recovery. Democrats are now using the war funding issue as another reason to reduce the tax cut.

“It’s a shameful agenda that when Americans are being asked to sacrifice the well-being of their loved ones, that we can’t ask the wealthiest of Americans to sacrifice a tax cut,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “In good times and bad times, Republicans are consistent in their message to cut taxes and cut funding for federal programs that help American families succeed.”

With a fiscal 2003 supplemental spending bill to pay for the war on the horizon, many Members are also staking out their ground for projects they say would help protect Americans in their home states.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said first responders need federal assistance in coordinating communication between firefighters and police officers.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is calling for Congress to hold off on tax cuts and spending increases until the cost of the war is known, also noted the need for increased border security in the Southwest. He also pressed for swift enactment of the cargo security measure approved last week by the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which he chairs.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who chairs the Commerce panel’s Aviation Subcommittee, said a war that lasts longer than a couple of days will likely spur an urgent interest in another airline bailout package.

Republican leaders also said they may use the war issue as a catalyst for a controversial measure that would insulate vaccine makers from some lawsuits. Pharmaceutical companies have said the potential liability they could face from developing vaccines to combat bioterrorism could hamper their availability. Lott said the vaccine measure could be attached to the supplemental spending bill.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle note that any legislation with any connection to the likely war is bound to become must-pass legislation.

“When they come up and are tied to the war, they will happen quickly,” said Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.). “But I don’t think [war] will set aside all the basic things we’re going to do.”

Democrats said they also expect the threat of war-related terrorist attacks will put more pressure on Republicans to agree to Democratic demands that homeland security initiatives be better funded.

“America becomes a much less safe place the day we start killing Iraqis,” asserted one Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Though most lawmakers predicted a largely peripheral role for Congress, there are a few Members who would like Congress to deal directly with the ramifications of war.

Defense hawk McCain and dove Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) agreed that Congress must use its oversight capabilities to make sure troops are well taken care of and to oversee the rebuilding of Iraq.

“It’s always wise to expect the unexpected in war,” said McCain. “Everything we’re saying and doing is overlaid by the coming conflict.”

Mindful that their short work weeks could be perceived badly by the public during war, House Republican leaders have discussed the possibility of adding more workdays to the legislative calendar. If war begins this week, consideration of a resolution supporting American troops could delay debate over the budget and push the House into a relatively rare Friday session.

The impending war has also caused minor inconveniences for Members, who say they feel compelled to cancel press conferences and other events.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she postponed the planned Tuesday introduction of a bill to extend a tax cut for teachers who buy supplies for their classes.

Craig, meanwhile, said he has not cancelled any events as of yet. “But that doesn’t mean there won’t be,” he said. “We’re not at war yet.”

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.