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Democrats Warn GOP on Agenda

Pursuing Wedge Issues Could Provoke Halt to Senate Action

Hoping to persuade Republicans not to schedule votes on divisive issues during the coming weeks, Democratic Senators vowed Wednesday to grind legislative business in the chamber to a halt if GOP leaders seek to score political points on the eve of the election.

Democrats argue that there are too many urgent issues awaiting action for the chamber to spend time on such explosive topics as passing constitutional amendments to ban flag burning and same-sex marriages before October’s month-long pre-election recess.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) recently conveyed this warning to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). The two Senate leaders continue their negotiations on how best to bring the 108th Congress to a close or, at the very least, temporarily suspend legislative work until after Election Day.

“It is all about Nov. 2,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) of the GOP’s decision to consider scheduling a vote to criminalize flag burning. “I think what Tom Daschle has told Bill Frist, speaking for our [Democratic] Caucus, is if this is how you want to play in the closing days of the session, be prepared. It is an all-out war. If you want to be constructive and positive and bipartisan, we can get a lot accomplished.”

Daschle’s warning to Frist was confirmed by two other Democratic Senators.

Daschle spokesman Todd Webster said the Minority Leader is hoping the Senate can quickly finish its work on several pending items, including appropriations bills and the recommendations for intelligence reform that were proposed earlier this summer by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

“With the short time we have left, Democrats hope that Republicans will work with us in a good-faith and genuinely bipartisan manner,” Webster said.

Democrats are particularly miffed at the GOP’s insistence on scheduling votes on so-called “wedge issues” that have no chance of approval but which can be used rhetorically on the campaign trail.

Democrats point to the July vote on the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage as one example where there was no chance that 67 Senators would support the measure, but where the GOP went forward with the vote anyway, allegedly for political gain.

Some Democrats said they are concerned that Republicans might brandish a political double barrel right before the November elections: scheduling a vote outlawing flag-burning and then calling for a second vote to impose a ban on same-sex marriages.

Democrats framed the pre-emptive message to Frist as a warning not to allow the chamber to crumble into legislative chaos.

“If you know that votes don’t exist to pass either of them, there is only one purpose, and that is to try and create political advantage,” said a Democratic Senator who asked not to be named. “If that is the way you want to play the game, you are going to be voting on a lot of other things as well. If you want to be serious, we will be serious, but if you want to play political games then both sides can play.”

Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said he was surprised at the Democrats’ resistance to voting on the flag amendment.

“We have voted on the flag amendment every Congress,” Stevenson said. “What is their problem with the flag amendment? It is the number one priority of just about every veterans group in the country.”

Frist, in a brief interview yesterday, said that no scheduling decision “has been made,” but he acknowledged that there is pressure from veterans to bring a flag-burning ban up for a vote.

“Veterans all across the United States of America want to know where Senators stand and are pushing very hard for it,” he said. As for timing, “that decision hasn’t been made.”

Privately, Democrats argue that their GOP colleagues are interested in scheduling votes on these matters to hurt the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as well as Daschle’s re-election bid. Both Democrats oppose changing the constitution to ban flag-burning or same-sex marriage.

What is not clear is whether Kerry or North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, would return to the chamber to cast a vote in dissent. Like Kerry, Edwards voted against the amendment in 2000. Both Senators missed a vote in July that would have allowed the Senate to begin debating the federal ban on same sex marriage.

Despite Democratic misgivings about holding votes on these issues, some Republicans argue that Democrats should not be given a pass just because it is an election year.

“You are not elected to the Senate to duck votes,” said a senior Republican aide on the condition of anonymity. “You are elected to the Senate to take votes.”

The biggest obstacle to calling a vote before November is the truncated Senate schedule — a schedule that Frist said yesterday will be dominated by security and terrorism-related issues. The Majority Leader met with his top lieutenants over dinner in a room just off the Senate floor Tuesday night to sketch out a rough legislative schedule.

Once the Senate finishes its work on the Homeland Security Appropriations bill, Frist said he expects to move the nomination of Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency during the week of Sept. 20 and to finish a bill to overhaul the intelligence community by the Oct. 8 recess. That schedule would allow for four weeks of campaigning followed by a lame-duck session after the Nov. 2 elections.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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