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Fight Over Iraq Impairs Agenda

With less than a month to go before Memorial Day and gas prices topping the near-$3-per-gallon average of just a year ago, Capitol Hill has been surprisingly silent when it comes to talking about the rising price at the pump.

After all, it was barely a year ago that Republicans were regularly defending their energy policies and vowing to do more to help car-owning consumers, while then-minority Democrats were holding near daily press conferences to complain that the GOP was doing nothing to bring down fuel prices.

Yet there’s been precious little attention paid lately to the gas price issue, and it may be one of the most pronounced indicators of how much the weeks-long partisan fight over the Iraq War is sucking the political oxygen out of the rest of the agenda, particularly on domestic issues.

“Nobody’s even talking about the fact gas prices are at $3 a gallon,” a Senate GOP leadership aide remarked.

A variety of domestic matters have taken a backseat to the ongoing Iraq debate, including energy legislation, immigration reform, a minimum-wage increase, a budget resolution and scores of regular spending bills. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has set goals to bring both immigration and energy legislation to the floor before Senators adjourn May 25 for a one-week recess, but with just three weeks left, challenges remain.

Senate Democrats and Republicans freely admit Iraq has taken a good share of Congressional time and monopolized their focus, and both camps concede the issue is too important to sidestep. Of course, the agreement seems to stop there.

Majority Democrats insist that while the media has honed in on the clash over the emergency war spending measure, lawmakers continue to press ahead on other fronts. Democrats argue their committees are continuing to move forward on outstanding legislation, while they still have been able to move a number of high-profile bills across the floor, including the continuing resolution, ethics reform, stem-cell research, the budget bill and the first supplemental war spending bill.

“Our work goes on,” insisted Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Iraq “may be trumping in the media, but it’s not trumping everything else. Just look at everything else going on.”

“Certainly, it’s not unexpected that the war would be the top priority in terms of our focus. Putting our men and women in harm’s way has to be our top priority,” added Levin’s Michigan counterpart, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D). “But other things are happening. They just aren’t getting the attention.”

But Republicans view it a little differently.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the ranking member on the Budget Committee, said there’s no doubt Iraq has monopolized the Senate’s attention for the better part of a year, even before the Democrats took control of the chamber in January. Gregg added that Iraq has “muted if not stymied” numerous bipartisan legislative efforts this Congress, adding that outside of a possible breakthrough on immigration reform, Senators may have to say goodbye to reaching consensus on a variety of priorities, including free trade and entitlement reform

“Very little can be done in the area of domestic policy,” Gregg said. “First, the issue has taken up all of the energy, but secondly it’s created a poisonous, partisan atmosphere.”

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the Republicans’ No. 3 leader, said with so little progress on other agenda fronts, the Democrats may find themselves facing some political heat come 2008, when they ask voters for another two years in control of Congress.

“Democrats made such a fuss about changing things and getting a bunch of things done,” Kyl said. “With all the time being taken up on the Iraq debate, how would they expect to accomplish anything significant? They may have to get back to governing.”

Immigration reform may be the bright spot on the horizon, but it remains mired in bipartisan talks and is still short of reaching a consensus. Other domestic priorities have uncertain futures as well, including on the energy front, where it is still unclear whether a leading bipartisan group of Senators can usher through a far-reaching efficiency and alternative fuels measure in time to bring it to the floor for consideration before the recess.

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said there’s no doubt that with the spotlight on the Iraq funding issue, the Senate has done little to address other outstanding priorities such as health care, immigration reform and energy policy. On the all-but-nonexistent gas price debate, Lott said Democrats have a responsibility to get to work.

Democrats “were pretty outspoken about it a year ago,” Lott said. “Democrats own this issue now. It’s up to them to produce a bill. They’ve done nothing. Now it’s their baby.”

“So far, all we’ve done this year is make political statements,” Lott added. “We’re surpassing the last Congress and the one in the late ’40s as the most ‘do nothing’ Congress.”

But Democrats said it is the Republicans who need to look in the mirror, saying they, like Democrats before them, have proved the minority party is capable of exerting its will over the chamber. Public focus on Iraq “has taken the attention off of the other issues Republicans have objected to,” a Democratic Senate leadership aide charged, adding that “they continue to slow-walk bills” or block measures outright, most notably including the intelligence authorization bill.

This senior staffer was quick to add that it was also the Republicans who have forced Democrats to shift so much of the Senate energy to Iraq, given it was under four years of the GOP-controlled Congress that lawmakers rarely, if ever, engaged in a major discussion of the conduct of the war.

“We’re making up for four years of inaction,” the aide said, later adding: “Quite frankly this is the number one issue on the American people’s minds and we’re listening.”

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