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War Key to GOP Agenda

When Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) stood up last Thursday morning at the House GOP Conference meeting to mobilize the troops for the looming vote on the budget resolution, his message was clear — if we don’t pass this bill, we’re undermining President Bush.

Such rally-behind-the-White House rhetoric has long been a staple of Congressional politics. But most votes don’t take place when American troops are abroad facing enemy fire, and Republican leaders in both chambers are now emphasizing the importance of unity on the home front as they push the domestic agenda forward — even on issues arguably not related to the war.

While Senate GOP leaders are still mulling how to deal with Bush’s expected boost in popularity from the war in Iraq, the House Republican leadership has already begun placing a heavy emphasis on this message, using it to help them eke out a win on the budget while laying the groundwork for an energy bill and other legislative items.

“The president’s ability to garner support for his agenda is enhanced now, especially when the topic relates directly or indirectly to the war on terror,” said one House GOP leadership aide.

That was certainly the case on the fiscal 2004 budget resolution, which passed early Friday morning by just three votes after leaders made clear to Republican Members that they had to back Bush now more than ever.

“Clearly there is an attempt to emphasize the importance of what they view as an undercutting of the president at a time of war,” one House Republican moderate said before Thursday’s budget vote.

The lawmaker said that he did not feel bullied by the message, but that it certainly added to the pressure he felt to vote aye.

From a message perspective, party strategists said they were acutely aware of how the press might begin a story about the budget vote if they had lost: “As the president pushed forward with the war on Iraq, the House rejected his budget last night.”

Republican operatives said that calling for unity behind the president was particularly appropriate during the budget debate because the bill provides a spending blueprint for Bush’s entire domestic agenda.

The question now for House leaders is the extent to which they can use that same argument on other issues. Top Republicans are pushing to have an energy bill on the floor by the beginning of April, while a wartime supplemental spending bill is expected soon. A medical malpractice measure could also be on tap before Memorial Day.

“The president’s appeal has always been part of our appeal to our Members,” said a House Republican strategist. “That’s the advantage of having the White House and a particularly popular president that the people are pulling for and trust.”

The aide pointed out that Bush’s “name is often affixed to a great many things we do,” such as the president’s energy plan, the president’s Medicare plan, and so on.

From that perspective, the aide said, calling for support for the White House is a no-brainer. “That’s a common denominator among Republicans. We support him and we want to see him succeed. Our fortunes are inextricably linked.”

At the same time, Republican strategists said they’re well aware of the limitations of that pitch, especially since it could open them to accusations that they are using the war for political gain.

“It’s not something you want to go to the well too much on,” said a senior House GOP leadership aide.

Fear of being seen as exploiting the war isn’t the only reason leaders will be cautious in following the president’s lead too much. Members are sensitive to charges that Congress is playing lap dog to the White House.

On the expected supplemental spending bill, for example, Republicans said they plan to give the White House what it’s looking for on a basic level, but they will not just act as a rubber stamp and plan to alter the bill if they believe changes are warranted.

“Congress has a role to play and we’re not just going to roll over,” said a senior House GOP aide.

In the Senate, the patriotic message has been more subdued, though Republican aides in that chamber acknowledge there have been discussions about how to use Bush’s expected boost in popularity.

“As one evaluates the next three weeks, you have got to say, ‘Okay, let’s assume in a war context the public doesn’t have an appetite for partisan bickering and the president’s approval is additional leverage,’” said a Senate Republican leadership aide, who added the issues being reviewed range from medical malpractice to the GOP’s continued efforts to have Miguel Estrada confirmed on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Still, the aide said the GOP is mindful of not appearing overly partisan at a time when the world is looking for a united America during the war with Iraq.

“It is a factor, but not the only factor for decision-making,” the aide added.

Democrats said they are prepared if Republicans try and capitalize on the war, vowing not to cave in under the pressure of Bush’s popularity.

“We are very clear in our agenda,” said Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Barbara Mikulski (Md.). “We are absolutely for standing up for the security of America, supporting our troops and protecting our homeland and at the same time protecting what America stands for.”

In the short term, it appears the Senate is likely to focus on war-related items on the floor this week, addressing such issues as tax breaks for members of the military to taking up “Project Bioshield,” which would provide $6 billion over 10 years to produce vaccines for pathogens such as anthrax and Ebola.

“I haven’t made any decisions yet, it depends on how this goes,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said late Friday afternoon about the schedule.

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