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Senate Debate Moves to Trail

With control of the Senate on the line, Democrats and Republicans will fan out across the country this week to offer competing assessments of the 108th Congress in a final three-week campaign push before the November elections.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Friday described this legislative session as one of “big ideas” and “big reform,” but claimed that at times the GOP has been obstructed by Democrats from completing its work.

Democrats had a ready response, charging that Republicans “have pushed a special interest agenda and refused to moderate extreme views that are outside the American mainstream,” according to a pre-recess memo prepared for Democratic Senators.

Leaders in both parties have instructed their colleagues to echo these respective messages on the campaign trail through Nov. 2 in an effort to try to cast doubt in voters’ minds about their political counterparts’ ability to lead the chamber.

Most observers agree that Republicans have the edge in retaining their narrow majority when voters hit the polls. But polls in a number of races, such as open-seat contests in Oklahoma, North Carolina and Alaska, show razor-thin margins, leaving little room for error.

Each party appears to agree that the three most important issues in this election year center on health care, jobs and the war on terror, but they disagree on how to address each of these politically charged subjects. For example, Republicans are heralding their efforts to reform the nation’s Medicare program, an overhaul that Democrats argue does not go far enough. Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) dismissed the Democratic opposition as political maneuvering.

“The left-wing groups have been out there trying to trash Medicare for a long time and there is a lot of positive things that we can and should say about the number of beneficiaries that have signed up and the benefits that they are getting,” he said.

On the issue of employment, Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said he expected his colleagues to ask voters to take stock of their own fiscal health by invoking a phrase made famous by the late Republican President Ronald Reagan.

“I think the question we are going to ask is ‘Are you better off?’” Daschle said. “Are you better off with this administration? Employment is down. We have lost 1.6 million jobs. Americans are facing perhaps the greatest squeeze financially that they have faced. The income has dropped $1,500 for a typical family.

“So are you better off?” he echoed.

In addition to talking directly about individual policy matters, GOP Senators are being told to promote a macro message to voters that the GOP has an agenda with proven accomplishments. Specifically, Republican Senators are being told to focus on “three key constituencies: married women with children; women 55 and up; and Hispanics,” according to a internal Senate GOP memo.

Republicans believe they offer the best plan to protect the nation from terrorist attacks, which is becoming a major issue for married women with children. The GOP believes its effort to revamp the Medicare program appeals to women over 55, who are making plans for their own retirements. While there are no specific issue Republicans are touting to Hispanic voters, they acknowledge that they represent a very important voting bloc in several swing states. GOP leaders have informed Republican Senators that they will help them to engage directly with the Hispanic community and media to help promote their message.

Democrats were also issued talking points last week to speak from over the next three weeks that hit Republicans on just about every domestic and foreign policy issue.

“On issues ranging from first responders to fiscal responsibility, from healthcare to homeland security and from education to the environment, Republicans have failed to protect America, ignored the concerns of American families and taken the country in the wrong direction,” Democratic leaders wrote in the Oct. 7 memo.

Still, despite all the efforts to frame the national debate, local issues will be just as influential in many races.

“Whether it is tobacco in North Carolina, jobs in South Carolina where textile jobs have evaporated, or legitimate emergency plans in Florida,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) said. “First of all, people will talk about issues that are important to their states.”

But campaigning could be interrupted later this month if Senate and House conferees are able to iron out their differences on the 9/11 intelligence reform bill.

“If that conference makes progress, which I hope that it will, they would have a product,” Frist said. “And if that product is ready to be brought back to the floor, we would do that sometime around the third week in October, although we don’t know when that would be.”

But one thing is certain, the Senate will return in November for a lame-duck session to complete its unfinished business, but with so much up in the air the Majority Leader said he doesn’t “know how long that will take.”

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