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GOP Members Head Home to Tout Accomplishments, but Democrats Ready With Counterattack

Despite a razor-thin win on a presidential priority and a surprise defeat on a publicly popular initiative, the House Republican leadership proudly prepared Friday to send its troops back to their districts to spread the GOP message and tout their victories.

“When we take a step back, and let the dust settle after today’s last vote, I think everyone will see how the House Republican Conference is fulfilling America’s promise by delivering positive results for the folks back home,” Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said at an “accomplishment” rally. “We are delivering with a capital ‘D’ positive results to the American people,” he added.

Hastert wants his Conference to talk up passage of the most recent tax cut, the Homeland Security appropriations bill, the School Readiness Act — which would re-authorize and revamp Head Start — and the plan to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

Democrats enter the August recess planning to use those very issues against Republicans.

At the forefront will be the Head Start legislation that passed by one vote, 217-216, early Friday morning.

Its author, Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), had to tweak the bill to keep moderate Republicans from bolting as 100 percent of Democrats opposed it.

Its backers say it merely would allow eight states more flexibility in their early-education programs. Democrats say it’s a block grant designed to eventually end federal involvement in the successful program.

“They would like nothing more than to see 50 state programs run by 50 state governors,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) said Thursday night on the House floor.

“My Democratic colleagues and I are not standing here today just reflexively defending Head Start because [President] Lyndon Johnson signed it into law in 1964,” he said.

“No, we are here defending Head Start and to expose the GOP’s bill that is designed to dismantle it,” he said.

Republicans counter that Democrats fear change.

“Republicans voted to strengthen Head Start by boosting its academic components and improving coordination with successful state early-childhood education programs,” said Dave Schnittger, spokesman for Education and the Workforce Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Democrats simply voted for the status quo.”

Democrats hope to keep the pressure on the GOP — especially targeted Members who were forced to cast a “tough vote,” according to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) spokesman — by building on strong grassroots support that sprung up in opposition to the measure.

Republicans anticipated such a strategy and included detailed talking points for their Members to use back home, said a spokesman to GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio).

For example, if detractors say the plan cuts Head Start funding, Republicans can counter that the final bill actually would increase spending by $100 million, said Greg Crist, Pryce’s spokesman.

The Conference also produced an extensive “myths and facts” sheet that Members can rely upon, he added.

Republican leaders also downplayed the significance of 87 of its Members defying them on a prescription drugs bill. The leadership did not whip the issue (whether to allow consumers to import inexpensive prescription drugs from abroad) but Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and others actively worked against it.

“The will of the House spoke,” DeLay said.

They supported a bill “based on what I didn’t think was very strong evidence,” he said, noting that 53 Senators signed a letter saying they would not support any Medicare overhaul conference report that included the House provision.

The matter has to be dealt with in the conference committee convened to hammer out differences in the House and Senate Medicare bills.

“We will have to find a way to accommodate it,” Hastert said of the bill forced to the floor by Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.). She withheld her key vote on the Medicare legislation last month until Hastert promised to bring the measure, drafted by Reps. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), up for consideration.

Pryce tried to keep the focus on the entire legislative session to date, instead of dwelling on this week’s action alone.

“From winning the war on terror to improving Medicare for the 21st century, opening education opportunities for our children and teachers and growing the economy and creating new jobs, our accomplishments are America’s priorities,” she declared.

While they did not hold a rally, House Democratic leaders also patted themselves on the back, saying their Caucus unity is high.

“On every other major issue in this Congress, our unity rate has been above 95 percent,” Hoyer boasted in a release. “And on two major issues … Democrats were 100 percent united.

“As we head into … August … we are encouraging our Members to take that message home to their constituents,” he said.

Pelosi laid claim to the same victories during her last weekly press conference before the recess.

“I am extremely proud of our Democratic Caucus,” she said. “They have worked through this session helping families, helping America’s working families, our children, the working parents, work for the pension security of their grandparents.”

Democrats sent their Members out to remind voters that the economy is still sluggish — for which they blame President Bush — and to tell constituents that the GOP’s Medicare prescription drug plan is inadequate, said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly.

The House is expected to adjourn having passed 11 of the 13 annual spending bills and a second emergency supplemental.

Despite Democrats’ best efforts — they used parliamentary stalling tactics all week to protest this fact — the House has not accepted the Senate’s version of a bill aimed at giving low-income families additional tax relief.

The issue will still be on the table when Congress returns after Labor Day but House Republican leaders have shown no willingness to change their position.

Hastert said last week that he prefers the broader House bill that would help wealthier families too.

Members can expect to spend September finishing appropriations bills and dealing with conference reports — such as the Medicare report, DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella said.

DeLay also wants to bring the Portman-Cardin pension reform bill — whose passage from committee turned the House upside down last Friday — and an unborn victims measure to the floor after the recess, he said.

Finally, if the Senate completes its version of a major energy policy package next week, the House will have to revisit that issue, he said.

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