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Parties Head Home With Mixed Records

As Congress eyes its first recess in six weeks, Democrats and Republicans alike are finding out that a divided government can create blame aplenty and little for either side to crow about.

The dynamic is to be expected in a highly charged political atmosphere where Democrats control the House and Senate while Republicans run the White House. That division makes it difficult, if not impossible, for either party to wholly get its way, and proof positive has come in the form of the latest version of the Iraq spending bill and a Senate compromise on immigration reform that no one seems to adore.

“The Democrats are doing a good job, but the Republicans are doing a good job on their side as well,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). “That’s why we’re getting compromise as opposed to deadlock.”

But all the necessary deal-making seems to be putting both parties, in both chambers, in a precarious spot as they look to impress their constituents over the recess. Democrats want to convince voters they are best left in charge of the government, while Republicans are hoping to ride on a wave of change to recapture control of Congress in less than two years.

“Part of it is the process,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “Legislating is difficult and arduous. Clearly both sides are fighting for what they believe in and accomplishments often incorporate what both sides want.”

Immigration reform, for example, is an issue that splits both parties and will be a magnet for voter outrage when Members return home to their districts next week.

Iraq remains on center stage as well, but on that front, Republicans are largely unified behind a message of funding the troops fully without set timelines for withdrawal, even as they attempt to strike a disapproving tone about the situation in Iraq. Meanwhile, Democrats have struggled with a policy to provide the resources for U.S. forces while trying to force President Bush to accept an exit strategy from the region.

Democrats and Republicans are both plotting strategies to lay out their agendas and tout their successes next week, both legislatively and politically. Senate Democratic leaders, for instance, are arming their Caucus with talking points on Iraq and immigration as well as outlining key Senate-passed bills and laying out broad plans to reform the nation’s energy policies designed to try to bring down record-high gas prices.

“Our Members are going home in a good place,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) acknowledged at a press conference Wednesday that “legislating is the art of compromise,” but he gave his party high marks for its work over the first five months of the 110th Congress, which included passage of a minimum-wage increase, lobby reform package, budget blueprint and an outline for an end to the Iraq War.

“The American people see what we’ve accomplished in these short months,” Reid insisted. “I feel very strongly that we can tell them what we’ve been able to accomplish. I feel very comfortable about where we are.”

Still, not all Democrats are as confident, especially in the House where a strong cadre of left-leaning Members is still stinging over their leadership’s handling of the Iraq spending measure that no longer contains timelines for troop withdrawal. Some Democrats fear the party has failed to take credit effectively for the high points in the Iraq spending bill, such as a provision calling for the first minimum-wage increase in a decade.

“They could have done a better job of positioning themselves to get here,” said one aide to a left-leaning House Democrat aide. “Ultimately, nobody expected the final [war spending bill] to be anything other than what we’re seeing here. But we’re still getting lambasted for capitulating to the president.”

Perhaps the most striking example of the divided Democratic message on the war is the difference between Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) stance and that of her chief message guru, Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.).

Some House Democrats worry Pelosi’s refusal to vote for the bill will be viewed as a tacit admission that the White House was able to strong-arm Congressional Democrats. That has undermined Emanuel’s attempts to claim victory for Democrats by saying the inclusion of benchmarks for the Iraqi government and reporting requirements for the administration marks a significant capitulation for Bush, some Democrats said.

Still, majority lawmakers in both chambers said they feel they may be able to salvage their message and momentum heading into the Memorial Day recess.

“This doesn’t have to be a bad week for us,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.).

Davis said the Congressional Democrats’ inability to force Bush to scale back the Iraq War could be transformed into a message about the upcoming 2008 presidential election. And he added that Republicans don’t have much to boast about heading into the break, either.

“Their message next week is stay the course in Iraq. That’s not a winning message,” he said.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) agreed, saying President Bush’s stand on the war shows that the GOP “really hasn’t taken a lead the way voters expect.” Conversely, Tester said, Democrats have a lot to brag about from passing key measures such as a minimum-wage increase, as well as looking ahead to passing a broad energy package that would cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

“We’ve passed a lot of stuff,” Tester said. “I’m happy with the way things are going. Do I wish the president signed more bills? Sure. But we’ll get there.”

Republicans, however, are seeing their opening in that very line, believing the Democrats’ inability to clear legislation through both chambers and win approval from the president is their ace in the hole.

GOP lawmakers in both chambers plan to use the recess to tout the ineffectiveness of the Democratic majority as they look forward to laying the groundwork for a message of change in 2008 including extending tax cuts, bringing down gas prices and putting fiscal discipline into practice.

“The folks on the other side have produced nothing,” said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), one of the GOP’s most vulnerable Senators this cycle.

“They are feeling the sting of a ‘do-nothing’ Congress,” said Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Cornyn (Texas). “Now they are in charge and they have to have some accomplishments.”

Indeed, Republicans should be able to claim measured victory on the Iraq spending bill, given that Democrats essentially agreed to scrap their tough talk on Iraq for a GOP-written provision requiring only periodic reports on the war’s progress. But GOP Members, wary of being too closely tied to support for the war, are trying to shift the message away from the notion that they blocked Democrats from changing the U.S. mission in Iraq.

When asked whether the Republicans would be touting their win on the Iraq spending bill fight next week, House Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said, “I think it is a victory for the troops, and I think that is the way we’ll talk about it.”

Cantor acknowledged the Iraq debate is “the elephant in the room” but said Republicans would be more focused over the break on “kitchen-table issues for the American family.” That includes criticizing the recently passed Democratic budget plan as “the largest tax increase in history.”

Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.), general chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the GOP actually is feeling some wind at its back these days, given where it started in January following the devastating 2006 elections.

“We were roundly punished by the voters last election because we didn’t get a lot done,” Martinez said. “Now Democrats are looking at bearing that burden. Our folks have done very well. We’ve been hanging together. It’s much better than I anticipated.”

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