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Back at Home, No Rest for the Weary

War of Words On Tap for Recess

The war of words kicks off in earnest this week as Members return to their districts, with Republicans touting the legislative accomplishments of the 109th Congress and Democrats charging failure and calling for a change.

House and Senate leaders in both parties have given firm marching orders to the rank and file to keep the message drumbeat going over the next five weeks. Don’t expect to hear many new themes, however, as Democrats stick to topics of Social Security, the future of the Supreme Court and jobs and Republicans tout recent victories on judicial nominations, trade, energy, highway construction and bankruptcy reform.

Congress provided a taste of what’s to come as it left town last week. House and Senate Democratic leaders called Republicans “out of touch” with Americans’ needs and putting the wants of special interests first. The leaders specifically charged that the Republicans’ agenda has, to date, ignored veterans, education, health care, job creation, national security and a Social Security reform plan acceptable to most voters.

“If you are an Exxon lobbyist, a right-wing judge or a White House leaker, then yes, this has been a productive session,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.). “But if you are a working family, struggling to afford health care and looking for help from Republicans in Congress, you must be wondering whose side they are on.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said the first seven months of the 109th Congress have been “marked by missed opportunities and bad priorities.”

“Democrats are the party of the future,” she said, later adding: “On any subject you can name, this is a Congress that is out of touch with the American people.”

While House Republicans made some effort to return fire on Democrats last week, they mostly focused on their own legislative accomplishments and the importance of conveying that record back home this month.

“In January, I don’t think even the most optimistic Member in our Conference thought that we could have achieved so much in so little time,” GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) wrote in the introduction to the recess packet distributed to Republicans last week.

Pryce emphasized that the recess was the ideal time for lawmakers to tell their constituents about all they’ve accomplished in Washington, a message that may not have been getting through before.

“This year, we all have been competing with a sensationalist media that has, on occasion, prevented our record of accomplishment from reaching our friends and neighbors,” Pryce wrote, adding that Members could use August to “end-run the national media” and speak directly to the public.

That record of accomplishment cropped up in other leaders’ statements as the House was poised to break for recess.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called the chamber’s first seven months of 2005 “incredible” during a pen-and-pad briefing Thursday morning. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) convened his own session with reporters an hour later and said, “Leaving in July with highway, [the Central American Free Trade Agreement] and energy [done] is a huge verification that this is a governing party, that we’re able to get things done.”

At a get-out-of-town rally later on Thursday, GOP leaders repeated that theme and also criticized the Democratic leadership for failing to help pass their agenda. Hastert was particularly critical of Pelosi on that front after she chastised Republicans for their tactics on the CAFTA vote.

“I wish that the Democrat leader would join us … and not threaten her own people,” Hastert said. “Let’s get real.”

In addition to bragging about the GOP’s overall record of accomplishment, the Conference recess packet includes specific talking points on energy, the war on terror, Medicare, immigration and a host of other issues.

While the packet does include a one-page section on Social Security — a set of questions and answers on the leadership-backed GROW accounts bill — the topic is not being pushed by GOP leaders with the same intensity as it was earlier this year.

House Democrats, for their part, have instructed Members to use the recess to criticize the GOP for abusing its power, for trying to privatize Social Security, for failing to improve the economy and for undermining the middle class.

Leaders have asked Members to continue to hold Social Security town halls in their districts, specifically during the week of Aug. 14, which is the 70th anniversary of the entitlement program. The leaders also plan to reach their 1,000th town hall event in the coming weeks.

House Democrats will continue to call to protect Social Security and charge that Republicans “have threatened to replace Social Security’s guaranteed benefit with a guaranteed gamble.”

In the meantime, Senate Republican leaders are urging their rank-and-file Members to talk about the need for the Senate to quickly confirm Supreme Court nominee John Roberts as they begin criss-crossing their respective states this week.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) has made it clear that completing Robert’s confirmation hearings before the court convenes in the first week of October will be one of his top priorities.

“Looking ahead in September there are a number of issues, but from a Senate perspective, one of the most important is obviously the confirmation of John Roberts,” said Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson. “And the need to work together in a dignified process to get that done.”

“Members certainly have the ability to divine his record and to question him but they should do so in a dignified atmosphere that reflects well on the institution and the American people,” he added.

In addition, GOP leaders are asking their colleagues to speak about the Republicans’ legislative accomplishments so far this year. Republican leaders trumpeted the passage of CAFTA, bankruptcy reform legislation, a class-action reform bill, the approval of six controversial judicial nominees and about 10 other legislative measures at a news conference last week.

“I think this has been the most productive first session already, and the first session is not over yet, that we have had since the mid-’90s,” Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said in an interview. “There is much to talk about in terms of legislative accomplishments.”

Senate Democrats will counter Republican efforts with an offensive of their own, with leaders urging the Caucus to hold numerous events in their districts on Social Security, stem-cell legislation, the Voting Rights Act, education, gas prices, health care and veterans’ benefits.

Leaders also armed Senators with recess binders with talking points on key topics of the Supreme Court, the “Republican economic record,” Medicaid and Medicare, and Social Security. Democrats will press the message hard that the Supreme Court must be “fair and independent” and that a moderate justice is key to keeping a balanced judiciary.

“Democrats will spend August talking to their constituents, sharing with them the progress we can make if the Republicans had their priorities straight,” said Reid’s spokeswoman Rebecca Kirszner. “Just because Republicans spent the summer doing the bidding of special interests doesn’t mean we have to spend the fall ignoring the needs of families as well.”

Mark Preston contributed to this report.