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Democrats’ ‘New Line of Attack’

Even as they contend with an overwhelmingly popular Republican president and a military conflict on which they are divided, House Democrats believe they are beginning to see the seeds of their revival in a war they earlier thought would be their death knell heading into the 2004 elections.

Democrats recognize they face tremendous challenges in trying to promote their domestic priorities with the nation at war. But they also are finding new momentum in their efforts to bring focus to the nation’s economy and are settling on a new opposition strategy on the budget, taxes and homeland security — all of which relate to the war but do not force Democrats to discuss whether they believe the conflict is legitimate.

“War dictates a new approach to the budget and tax and spend policies,” said Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition. “I don’t like to view it as an opportunity — no one should seek an opportunity to see advantage because of the war — but we do have a chance to call it as we see it.”

And while Democrats acknowledge some of their core issues may have to take a back seat for now, they plan a renewed push for them — with what they hope will be a stronger hand — once the war is concluded.

“War presents an opportunity to reformulate the issues,” said a senior Democratic House aide. “It’s giving us a new line of attack.”

Democrats have for months been pointing to a faltering economy to bolster their criticism of the GOP majority and Republican president. But they have now adopted a slightly different approach of criticizing the economics behind the war effort, a discussion which they believe will have legs even after the conflict ends.

“Admittedly, it is difficult because the national attention is inevitably on the war,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) “But we can and have to be able to take dual tracks.”

Republicans, however, aren’t going to make it easy for those on the other side of the aisle, and GOP strategists, citing their traditional advantage on the issues of both national security and the economy, profess little worry about the minority’s efforts.

“Their issues aren’t even on the radar screen,” said John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “They are trying to spin a good game, but the fact is they are in a tremendous bind.”

GOP Members and aides say Democrats still have a credibility problem with the public because of their internal divisions over the Iraq conflict. They argue that the split will only make it more difficult for Democrats to project a strong and coherent message, particularly since Republicans are steering the agenda both on the war and tax policy.

“We have the home-field advantage on this one,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), vice chairman of the Republican Conference, adding that the public will see through Democratic efforts “to suddenly reinvent themselves for their public image.”

But Democratic aides and Members argue the minority is in a much stronger position to argue their priorities now, saying it is more difficult during a war for the GOP to push a massive tax cut, while asking Congress to consider a $75 billion war supplemental, and seek a budget resolution they claim underfunds the key priorities of homeland security and veterans’ benefits.

Freshman Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said Democrats now have a heightened opportunity to point out differences between the two parties, perhaps giving greater fuel to the arguments they were making before the war. While education and health care initiatives may be on the back burner for now, he said Democrats are in a better position on key debates, such as providing more funding for first responders and homeland defense.

“Instead of just responding to Republican issues, we have to get out front,” he said.

As part of that, Democrats also are looking ahead at another strategy: focusing on developing a foreign policy centered squarely on post-war Iraq. Members, including House leaders, are beginning to huddle about their message, honing their approach on how to rebuild Iraq, improve bruised U.S. relations with traditional allies and what they describe as a recently adopted U.S. policy of “pre-emption.”

Democrats hope to get ahead of the topic in order to avoid being left behind in discussions once the war is over. Winning the peace, they argue, is an area around which they can unify — something they were unable to do on the war itself.

“No one is raising those issues,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who plans to be involved in a working group of Members developing a post-war plan. “Democrats are going to take the lead and raise the issues as to the next step.”

Looking to the immediate, however, House Democrats are taking a cue from their Senate counterparts, who have scored a number of victories on the domestic front since the war broke out. Just recently, moderate Members led a push to successfully slash by half President Bush’s $762 billion tax cut in the Senate budget resolution.

Admittedly, Democratic Senators have an advantage over their colleagues in the House, where Republicans’ 11-seat edge makes their parliamentary disadvantage even more pronounced.

“In the minority, obviously, it is tough to win legislatively because they have a super-majority in every chamber, both in the executive and legislative branches,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “But common sense is beginning to resonate, because we are standing up every day [and] talking about issues people care about.”

“I happen to support the president,” said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “But that doesn’t mean we have to be quiet. There are some issues that are of real concern, both short and long term, in terms of our security.”

Democrats point to the fact that they nearly prevailed in the recent budget debate by arguing the GOP blueprint cut key war-related programs and drawing a clutch of moderate Republican Members to their side.

One Democratic leadership aide said while it remains difficult to break through discussion of the war, the party hopes that the high stakes in the conflict will make the public more inclined to listen to both sides of the debate.

Rules ranking member Martin Frost (D-Texas), who backs the military operations in Iraq, said beyond the economics behind the war, House Democrats now have to “make it clear that we support the efforts of our troops in the field and there can’t be any backing away from that.”

Republicans “are asking us to be behind them, which we are, but we expect them to be honest,” Frost said. “Once the war is over we’ll still have the issue of the economy. It’s legitimate on our part to say we want to pay for the war and we don’t want to put it on a credit card.”

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