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Approps Message Takes Shape

With Republicans appearing to close ranks around President Bush and his newly invigorated desire for fiscal restraint, Senate Democrats and their outside allies are hoping to use that loyalty against the GOP as part of the majority’s new message strategy.

On Tuesday, 19 Republicans in the Senate reversed course on the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill and voted against final passage on a measure that they had supported last month, and Democrats vowed to use the disparity of votes against them in the coming months.

Although a senior Democratic leadership aide acknowledged that earlier this year Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his team had expected the fall to be dominated by the Iraq debate, events on the ground have temporarily put that issue on the back burner.

At the same time, following conservative complaints about increases in spending and the size of government on his watch, Bush in recent months has embraced fiscal restraint as one of his top priorities for the remainder of his tenure and has issued a series of veto threats against Democratic bills.

As a result, spending has become a central political issue on Capitol Hill, as well as the traditional procedural headache for leaders and rank and file alike.

“This isn’t the fight we wanted, but it’s the fight we got,” the Democratic leadership aide said.

According to Democratic sources, the strategy is based on a two-pronged approach to messaging on the appropriations process that will be used both nationally and in state-specific efforts by Senate Democrats and outside allies like the Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities. Democrats hope to contrast GOP willingness to push significant increases in war spending with their demands for fiscal discipline on the domestic front to make the case that Republicans are too committed to Bush’s war plans and are willing to sacrifice key domestic programs to pay for it.

The goal, according to ECAP’s Cara Morris Stern, is to reframe the debate to be “about hypocrisy and this being about real people and real programs.”

For instance, Democrats hope to use against them the fact that Republicans successfully pulled the Veterans Affairs and military construction spending bill off the Labor-HHS-Education bill Wednesday, arguing that they did so only in order to back Bush’s opposition of the underlying social spending measure.

The senior Senate Democratic aide said Democrats would happily point out what they see as the Republicans’ hypocrisy on military construction and veterans spending. Considering the Senate voted 92-1 to pass the original veterans bill in September, the aide said “for a wide margin of Senate Republicans to flip their votes and say, ‘No, this bill shouldn’t go to the president,’ that’s pretty stunning.”

Secondly, Democrats are hoping to use what Stern calls a “targeted outrage” strategy to identify specific programs in each of the domestic spending bills that they can use as flashpoints for each veto battle with the White House over the next several months. Democrats hope that if they focus their arguments on specific social programs such as after-school programs or veterans’ mental health spending, they can successfully parry Republicans’ charges that they are bursting the budget or are “Big Government Democrats.”

“You go to any bill, you can find 50 or 60 things” that Democrats can use as specific frames for the veto fight, the Democratic leadership aide said, adding that Reid and other leaders have identified “two or three key issues that will resonate with voters” in each bill that will become the centerpiece of Democrats’ message strategy.

The goal, Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau said, is to force Republicans to fight battles on specific issues rather than the broader issue of fiscal restraint. Democrats want to force Republicans to “go back to their legion halls and explain why they decided after voting unanimously [for the veterans bill] to change course at the last minute and why they care more about protecting their president than their constituents.”

Republicans dismissed the Democrats’ message strategy, saying the public will not believe they are at fault for holding up veterans funding.

“They’ve been sitting on it for two months,” Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said. “The president has indicated he’d sign it.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said the Democratic strategy could backfire because veterans groups appear to be on the side of Republicans, who have argued that the military construction-Veterans Affairs spending bill should move by itself.

“It’s a message war, obviously,” Thune said. “But I think how the veterans organizations across the country react probably will do more to influence the public debate on that than anything else.”

Meanwhile, it remains unclear how Democrats will proceed with the veterans package. Democrats have several options now that the military construction-Veterans Affairs funding was stripped from the Labor-HHS-Education bill. Chief among them is not moving the bill until at least mid-December in order to keep the measure as leverage with the White House.

The senior Senate Democratic aide said the veterans measure “could be held back if there’s some help to get us to an end game” with the president. But the aide cautioned that “the process for that bill is still up in the air.”

Indeed, procedurally the military construction- Veterans Affairs appropriations bill has not been to its own official conference between the House and Senate. Democratic aides said that could take some time, but they did not rule out sending the bill to the president next week.

But another Senate Democratic source said the option of holding the veterans bill back a little longer is viable politically because Democrats included veterans funding at the president’s requested level in the continuing resolution, attached to the Defense appropriations bill. That CR would keep the government funded in lieu of new appropriations until Dec. 14, and the entire Defense bill with the CR is expected on the Senate floor as early as Friday. The current CR expires in just over a week.

The senior Senate Democratic aide said including nearly $3 billion of the veterans spending in the CR would help Democrats “undercut [the president’s] argument that we’re not sending him veterans money.”

As they did with the veterans spending, Republicans could move to sever the CR from the Defense bill. But depending on when both chambers pass it, that could prove a politically perilous strategy that could result in a government shutdown if the maneuver to split it from Defense comes too close to the Nov. 16 expiration of the current CR.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said Democrats are simply giving the president what he’s been asking for — appropriations bills.

“We are obliged to move these things along,” he said at a press conference Wednesday. “We think there’s a connection between these bills. … And it’s convenient to [combine them] to get these things passed.”

Lautenberg and other Democrats have argued that they combined the two measures because veterans also depend on programs funded by the Labor-HHS-Education bill, such as early childhood education and college scholarships.

Another possible option, according to sources familiar with the issue, would be to hold the veterans bill until Congress is ready to move an omnibus spending measure and use it as the base bill.

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