The Republican-controlled Congress seems to be struggling lately to carry out its most basic mission: passing legislation. A proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage failed miserably. Long-debated immigration legislation has reached an impasse. The House passed line-item veto and estate tax measures that face significant hurdles in the Senate, while the Senate devoted a week to impassioned debates over Iraq that only resulted in two failed Democratic resolutions.
Democratic critics are reviving Harry S. Truman's taunt of a "Do-Nothing Congress." But many Republicans say they are exactly where they want to be as they head into the November elections, which will determine whether they retain their House and Senate majorities. In every instance, GOP leaders pushed legislation known to have little or no chance of eventual enactment but also known to appeal to conservative voters, whose turnout is crucial to the party's success.
On Monday, Senate Republicans plan to launch a debate on what many Democrats consider the king of cynical, election-oriented bills: a proposed constitutional amendment banning the desecration of the American flag. Senators say it is possible that they finally have the two-thirds majority needed for passage, but analysts in both parties say it hardly matters. The flag amendment is red meat for conservative audiences, and it is no surprise that Republicans are rolling it out with eight legislative weeks left in the election year.
"There's no question that they are trotting out their hardy perennials," said Matt Bennett, a former Democratic staffer who is vice president of Third Way, a centrist think tank. "They're done purely for political gamesmanship. . . . No one can go to the floor and say, 'The citizens of my district are demanding we take up the flag amendment.' "
When Democrats controlled the House and Senate, they, too, were known to bring up doomed bills for campaign purposes. But some people think that Republicans perfected the strategy in 2004 by championing an amendment against same-sex marriage that was certain to fail in Congress, but only after long and loud debates. President Bush and other Republicans campaigned vigorously on the issue, and some analysts said it played a notable role in the defeat of presidential nominee John F. Kerry and other Democrats.
This month, Senate Republicans forced another vote on the proposed ban on same-sex marriage, and it again fell far short of the needed votes. It even lost the support of two GOP senators who had backed it in 2004.
In light of that vote, plus the public's deep concern about the Iraq war, some Democrats believe that the thinly veiled use of the House and Senate floors to fire up voters may prove less effective this fall, or may even backfire.
"The gay marriage political ploy was a masterstroke in 2004, but it is not working this year," said Bennett, who closely follows polls and focus groups. Voters want serious debates on serious issues, not "flag burning and this other nonsense," he said, adding: "I am highly skeptical that this is smart politics."
In public, Republicans reject the charges of cynicism. "The notion that lowering taxes on American families, reducing government waste and reining in activist judges aren't legitimate issues that merit debate is absurd," said Tracey Schmitt, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. Critics fault "activist judges," including some on the Supreme Court, for ruling that flag burning is a constitutionally protected form of speech.
Privately, however, some Republicans acknowledge that certain votes are taken to create good campaign issues, and they accuse Democrats of doing the same. They point, for example, to the Democrats' annual insistence on a vote to increase the minimum wage, which has failed for nine straight years.
Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said his boss tries hard to pass meaningful legislation. "He knows how to get people in a room and wear them down until they agree," Bonjean said, citing role in the recent passage of a major spending bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and for hurricane relief, as well as of a tax-cut extension.
Yet the House and the Senate remain far apart on immigration, one of the most important legislative issues to be considered by Congress this year, and Democrats blame Hastert, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and the president for doing little to resolve the differences. The House bill on the subject deals only with border and workplace enforcement, while the Senate bill includes provisions allowing many of the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants to remain in the country legally.
Some Democrats and outside interest groups believe that House and Senate Republicans have decided it is best to enter the fall elections defending their chambers' respective approaches, even if it means that a Republican-controlled Congress and White House will fail to act on the nation's most pressing domestic issue. House conservatives in particular say that their constituents strongly prefer to tighten the border with Mexico before taking any other steps, an approach that senators from both parties have rejected.
"The Republican House wants to defeat the immigration bill," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters this week. "It's obvious that the Republicans in the Senate don't want an immigration bill."
The biggest gamble
Perhaps the biggest gamble that congressional Republicans have taken this year is their overwhelming support for Bush's Iraq policies, rejecting Democratic calls to begin a U.S. troop withdrawal. Despite the issue's weightiness and somber overtones, lawmakers in both parties acknowledged that they were eyeing the November elections as they debated and voted.
Republicans "have clearly made a political decision to do everything possible to have a unified front behind the president and his rhetorical strategy," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said in an interview. "That is understandable. What I have been criticizing is the way they have chosen to turn that into a political campaign. I find that disturbing."
But her fellow Democrats are planning their own series of events built around the war, starting with a hearing Monday on prewar intelligence, and including a Wednesday event on "five years of failed policy on national security," a party aide said. The week's slogan will be "Republicans: united in a failed policy of stay-the-course.