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Party Recess Messages to Focus on Domestic Policy

Senate Democrats and Republicans have been tasked by their leaders with focusing on domestic issues this week, a departure from the heavy emphasis on the Iraq War that has dominated the Congressional session so far.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ended the latest seven-week stretch of legislative work Friday with largely mixed records. While Democrats were stung by their inability to pass a supplemental with a specific timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, Republicans also have given ground in the war debate. By Friday afternoon even McConnell had taken up Reid’s “new direction” mantra.

“I think it’s pretty clear we’re going to go in a different direction in the fall,” McConnell told reporters, repeating the phrase “different direction” several times during his remarks.

The end of the supplemental debate also marked the start of a brief domestic period, and both leaders sent their Members home for the Memorial Day recess with messaging materials that, in addition to standard talking points on Iraq, highlight energy, immigration and the recent budget fight.

On the GOP side, while much of the Members’ recess packet remained devoted to Iraq, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Vice Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) also armed their members with materials on the budget, gas prices and immigration. Republicans this week are expected to continue to make the case that Democrats have failed to live up to any of the campaign promises they made last year, using skyrocketing gas prices as the centerpiece of that argument.

Increases in the budget also will be used by the GOP as an example of what they see as a lack of fiscal discipline on the part of Democrats as Republicans look to regain the mantle of fiscal restraint.

The Conference documents on immigration, however, highlight the tricky nature of the issue for Republicans. With Kyl — a key architect of the deal now being debated — and Cornyn, the leading opponent to the bill, both in charge of preparing the materials, the Conference took a largely factual approach to the issue and highlighting border enforcement provisions, which most Republicans have backed.

Democrats, meanwhile, will spend the bulk of the week on gas prices and broader energy issues as a lead-in to their domestic agenda work. According to Democratic aides, Reid has placed a top priority on talking about domestic issues over the next several weeks to take advantage of the lull in the Iraq debate.

One leadership aide said Reid hopes to use the recess to lay the groundwork for several weeks of floor work on the domestic front, starting the resumption of the immigration fight next week, followed by a full week on energy legislation. “I’d like to have a solid week to work on energy to demonstrate to voters that we get it” and are working on issues beyond the war, the aide said.

However, the spate of domestic agenda work may not last very long. Reid already has penciled in debate on the Defense authorization bill for the last week of June, and his war room is expected to use the week before to resume the rhetorical fight with the White House and Senate Republicans on the need to end the Iraq War. Although Reid has yet to settle on a strategy for the authorization fight, he is expected to continue Democrats’ push to pass legislation restricting President Bush’s ability to prosecute the Iraq War and begin the process of reducing the U.S. military presence there.

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