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Democrats Plan Message Blitz

After the Democratic National Convention, Congressional Democrats will begin a multipronged communications strategy that’s designed to chip away at Republicans’ perceived strength on national security matters and play up the notion that Democrats are better able to address domestic, “kitchen table” issues.

With polls showing President Bush winning high marks from Americans for his handling of the war on terrorism, Democrats are hoping to undercut one of the Republicans’ strongest campaign issues by highlighting a slew of national security measures that the Republican-controlled House, Senate and White House has failed to move on Capitol Hill.

“That’ll be a recurring theme — that Republicans have not made this country safer,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

Democrats plan to emphasize the recommendations handed down last week by the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, using a message that attacks the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress for doing little to address national security shortcomings that were known before the commission released its report.

“We could have been doing a lot more up until this point, and we need to move quickly on the recommendations of the 9/11 panel,” said Stacey Farnen, spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

While criticizing Republicans for inaction, Democrats also are using the umbrella of bipartisanship to highlight their eagerness to carry out the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. That was most in evidence on Friday, when Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) joined Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in calling for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to prepare legislation to implement the changes by Oct. 1 and in establishing a “working group” to assess how Congress’ oversight function might best be streamlined.

Still, the senior Senate Democratic aide noted that a bipartisan report issued a year and a half ago by the House and Senate Intelligence committees included many of the same recommendations for beefing up national security and improving the nation’s clandestine intelligence-gathering efforts.

“A lot of the recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission are similar to the bicameral, bipartisan report issued 18 months ago,” said the aide. “But Republicans have done nothing to implement those recommendations.”

With Democrats leveling such criticisms last week, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) issued a joint statement Friday evening saying that they had “directed our appropriate committees to examine the commission’s recommendations, begin hearings in August” and come up with specific proposals ready for legislative action in September.

Democrats say they want Congress to act on measures that addresses security concerns at chemical plants, nuclear facilities, borders, on public transportation and at seaports.

Democrats hope that by pointing out that their Members are the primary authors of various homeland security bills they will be better able to beat back public assumptions that Republicans are more trustworthy on national security issues.

For example, they say, Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) has been pushing for nearly two years a bill to force chemical plants to come up with security plans. However, the chemical industry has lobbied heavily against the measure, which has not been considered by committee.

Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has been pressing for consideration of her bill to provide major cities with direct homeland security block grants.

Republicans, however, charge Democrats with playing politics with a report that criticized both Republican and Democratic administrations. They add that Congress should not rush to judgment on the appropriate solutions to the nation’s security problems.

“It’s not just about legislation or creating bureaucracy,” said one Senate Republican aide. “It’s about creating effective solutions. … I don’t think their solutions are necessarily efficacious.”

But Democrats note that Republican-sponsored homeland security bills appear to be languishing as well. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) have offered similar bills designed to beef up U.S. border security. And a bill to address terrorism threats to public transportation systems — sponsored by Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) — has not moved since the committee approved the measure May 6.

While the national security message will take center stage during August, Democrats anticipate that when Congress returns from its six-week break on Sept. 7., the party’s message will zero in on domestic issues, such as health care costs and the minimum wage.

“When you’re back in session, there are more opportunities to focus on domestic issues and all the things Republicans have failed to do,” said the senior Senate Democratic aide.

Democrats will continue their push to get various health care bills added to the Senate calendar — a procedural move that allows the measures to more easily be called up for Senate floor action. Once such measures are on the Senate calendar, Democrats plan to use parliamentary tactics to force Republicans to object to bringing up bills to allow the reimportation of prescription drugs, to force health insurers to treat mental illness on par with physical illnesses, and to allow the government to negotiate lower-priced drugs for Medicare beneficiaries, among other things.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) also plans to continue pressing for a vote to increase the federal minimum wage — a proposal that Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) has made an issue in his campaign.

“Senator Kennedy will be looking for any legislative vehicle possible to try to offer his increase in the minimum wage,” said Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley.

Manley noted that Republicans have pulled several bills — including a State Department authorization, welfare reauthorization, and class-action litigation measure — from floor consideration to avoid a vote on the issue.

As they left town last week to go to the Democratic convention, House Democrats were prepping their Members on domestic issues.

“Most of the [talking-points] paper going out to House Democrats has been focused on bread-and-butter issues,” Farnen said.

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