Daschle, Pelosi Will Try to Pre-empt Bush

Posted January 2, 2004 at 5:50pm

Seeking to pre-empt President Bush’s State of the Union address, Congressional Democratic leaders will offer their own assessment of the nation’s current state of affairs several days before Bush’s prime-time speech.

The joint speech by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will be a critical evaluation of Bush’s handling of domestic and foreign policy issues, including the current situation in Iraq, aides to both lawmakers said.

“It is an important time for Democrats to send out their priorities and to talk about the state of the union and how Republicans have dealt with that over the past year,” said Ranit Schmelzer, Daschle’s spokeswoman.

The Democratic speech at the National Press Club is scheduled to take place on Jan. 16, with Bush addressing the nation Jan. 20.

In another facet of what Democrats hope will be an aggressive counterattack to Bush’s annual speech, Daschle and Pelosi will also deliver the rebuttal following the State of the Union speech. But unlike the Jan. 16 speech, the Democratic lawmakers are not expected to use the primetime forum to publicly criticize the president.

“The speech before will be a critical offering of a Democratic vision,” said Brendan Daly, Pelosi’s spokesman. “The official response will be a more positive speech.”

As for the situation in Iraq, Daly said it is likely the Democratic leaders will focus “more on the planning and aftermath of the war” in the Jan. 16 speech.

Last year, Daschle and Pelosi did a similar prebuttal to the State of the Union, but this year marks the first time these leaders have held back-to-back speeches focused on the State of the Union. In addition to Daschle and Pelosi’s address, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), will offer his personal observations about Republican priorities and Democratic goals in a Jan. 12 speech at the National Press Club.

Neither Schmelzer nor Daly would provide intricate details of the speeches, but based upon recent comments by Daschle and Pelosi, the addresses are likely to focus on issues important to the Democratic base such as education, the environment, health care and increasing the minimum wage.

“Democrats will continue to fight for jobs, better access to health care, the best possible education for our children, a clean environment in which for them to live in, and a safe world for them to succeed and flourish,” Daschle said last month.

Their attacks on Bush will come at a highly competitive time for Congressional Democrats, when the political media spotlight will be shining most sharply on the presidential nomination contest, which kicks off this month.

Congressional aides designed a nine-slide PowerPoint presentation early last month to come up with a theme to go after Bush and a plan for delivering the message through the din of the presidential campaign and Bush’s address.

In addition to some of the more obvious plans — getting out talking points to left-leaning allies before the speech and holding message events in districts across the country — Democrats are hoping for a very intense effort on talk radio, something that they’ve placed an increased emphasis on since the postmortems of the 2002 elections.

Of the nine slides in the PowerPoint, which was given to Roll Call by a Democratic source, four of them highlight the need to “book validators on cable television and radio outlets.”

A key problem for Congressional Democrats has been finding successful themes that resonate in the broadcast media, and the eight ideas floated in the early December PowerPoint suggest a continued reliance on similar messages that the Democrats have been pushing since the mid-1990s or earlier.

The ideas floated for aggressive media and floor strategies after the State of the Union were: passing a strong six-year highway bill; supporting the manufacturing tax credit; hiring more teachers to reduce classroom size; passing an unemployment insurance extension; securing more funds to clean up Superfund sites; protecting pension plans; raising the minimum wage; and allowing the federal government to negotiate for the lowest prices from pharmaceutical companies as part of the just-passed prescription drug plan.

Fashioning a new bill to revamp the prescription drug plan, the newest idea of the issues they plan to focus on, has become a focal point for Democrats on Capitol Hill. Staffers began working last month to fashion a Medicare prescription drug bill that would be embraced by all corners of the respective Democratic Caucus, and will continue this endeavor in the coming weeks.

The goal is to offer a consensus bill that most Democrats can “rally around” soon after Congress gavels back into session on Jan. 20, a Democratic source said.

After years of negotiations, Congress approved and Bush signed into law a a sweeping Medicare prescription drug bill last month, but Democrats claimed it does not adequately address seniors’ needs.

During the December news conference he hosted with Pelosi, Daschle acknowledged that “on top of our agenda is fixing the Republican Medicare plan.”

At the very least, Senate Democrats might offer parts of a new Medicare prescription drug bill as a series of separate amendments to legislation moving through Congress, perhaps starting with the unresolved 2003 omnibus appropriations bill. By doing this, Democrats hope to pressure Republicans in a presidential election year to accept a new enhanced prescription drug bill.

“I think, because we can make that an issue, as we say too hot to handle, that the public is attuned to, that we might have the opportunity to win a vote here and put [it] on the president’s desk,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi is calling House Democrats back to Washington on Jan. 14 for an issues conference to talk primarily about the economy and national security issues.

When Congress returns on Jan. 20, Democrats and Republicans are expected to lock horns over the seven unresolved 2003 spending bills that make up the omnibus legislation. Daschle said last month that he is going to vote against cloture on the omnibus bill and is urging his colleagues to follow suit.