• Friday, August 4, 2006 | 3:20 p.m ETFrom Chip Reid
Congress spins into recess
Senators didn't leave the Capitol until the wee hours this morning, many catching the next plane home, with no plans to return until September. But after only a few hours sleep, the leaders -- Republican Bill Frist and Democrat Harry Reid -- were back in their offices this morning, doing their best to spin this session of Congress to their political advantage.
In his personal office (with its beautiful view of the Mall and the Washington Monument), Frist told a standing-room-only crowd of reporters (no cameras allowed) that this Congress has been "really productive", and argued that the legislative record proves Democrats wrong when they call this a "do nothing Congress". (Frist and Reid are not personally close, and it shows when they talk about each other.) Frist recited a list of accomplishments, and his staff followed up with a 13-page memo titled "Accomplishments in the Senate So Far This Year." Some examples:
- billions for border security;
- hundreds of millions for port security;
- extending the 2003 tax cuts to the tune of $70 billion;
- shielding millions from the alternative minimum tax;
- a bill to permit more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico;
- a bill protecting children from child predators;
- extension of the Voting Rights Act;
- and late last night in the Senate's last vote before adjourning for August, a massive bill designed to assure 44 million Americans their pensions will be there when they retire.
But Harry Reid, backed up by a five-page staff memo titled "Failures of the 109th Do-Nothing Congress," argued that the record of this Republican Congress is one of "failure and misplaced priorities." Here are a few of Reid's accusations about the Republicans Congress:
- passing a massive give-away for big oil while doing nothing about soaring gas prices;
- spending far too much time on hot button issues only intended to whip up the Republican base, including flag-burning, abortion and gay marriage;
- failing to pass immigration reform;
- failing to override the President's veto on embryonic stem cell research;
- failing to fix the Medicare prescription drug bill;
- failing to increase the minimum wage;
- cutting funds for student loans.
Yes, this is the political silly season, with the mid-term elections less than three months away and control of Congress in the balance. Virtually everything is viewed through Republican or Democratic lenses. And it's standard practice for both parties to spin events their way. But the divide between the parties -- in terms of both positions on issues AND personal antipathy -- is as sharp as I've ever seen it.
So whether the glass of accomplishments is nearly full, as Republicans see it, or nearly bone dry, as Democrats argue, don't expect anything more than a few drops to be added when Congress comes back in September for one last month of battle and spin before heading home for election day.
A sixth Senate seat for Democrats?
With Republicans holding a 55-45 advantage in the Senate, Democrats have to net six Senate seats in November to retake control of that chamber. As we've mentioned before, while that's a tall order, Democrats certainly like their chances in five states (Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island). But finding that sixth state has been an elusive goal for them. After last night's primary results in Tennessee, however, Democrats think they have found that sixth seat in the Volunteer State. "We are feeling very, very good about Tennessee," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a conference call with reporters this morning.
To support his claim, Schumer praised the campaign and appeal of the Democratic candidate -- Harold Ford Jr. -- and he mentioned that last night's GOP three-way GOP primary -- which former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker won over former Reps. Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary -- has left the Republicans divided. But recent polls have shown Corker leading Ford in a hypothetical match up by between seven and 13 points. Brian Nick, a spokesman at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, tells First Read that Corker is clearly the favorite to win the race. "Ford's extremely liberal voting record is an utter disaster to run on statewide in Tennessee, so things look bleak for the Democrats despite their spin."
MINNEAPOLIS -- Remarks by top GOP officials at the Republican National Committee gathering here revealed an emerging strategy to cast doubt on particular Democratic lawmakers who would control Congress and its key committees should they attain the majority.
On one level, the aim is to cast doubt on these Democrats as incapable of keeping the country safe. Both RNC chairman Ken Mehlman today, and White House political director Sara Taylor yesterday singled out Rep. John Dingell (D) -- who "has his sights set on chairing the powerful Commerce Committee," as Taylor put it -- for recently refusing to take a stand against Hezbollah.
In his remarks today, Mehlman also asked who the country would prefer to have as Speaker of the House, "number three in line" for the presidency -- incumbent Dennis Hastert, or Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, "who said less than a year after 9/11 'I don't really consider ourselves at war.'" Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid also got a mention for some past statements on Iran. "This important debate" is "about which leaders understand the threat we face and have the clarity, purpose and strategies to defeat it," Mehlman said.
Later in his remarks, Mehlman also asked the RNC members to "picture what Congress would look like if we do not" keep the majority" -- including "a House Judiciary Committee chairman" (i.e., John Conyers) who has expressed support for impeaching President Bush.
An RNC official at the meeting says the party will start doing more to highlight "what a Democratic Congress would mean for the country." This official says the effort will focus on these particular Democrats' policies. Even so, Democrats are likely to decry the criticisms as personal attacks, perhaps particularly since some of these would-be committee chairs are minorities.
First Read will not be publishing on Fridays in August. But to mark the new jobs report, here's a First Read Update.
The latest statistics from the Labor Department show an increase of 113,000 since July, nudging the unemployment rate up a bit to 4.8% but allowing Republicans to tout 35 straight months of job growth.
Administration and other GOP officials unfailingly highlight that over 5 million jobs have been created in the last three years in making their case that the US economy is doing well. The hitch for them, as our NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters point out, is that jobs are no longer the pressing economic concern they were in the 1990s. Many Americans are now using other standards to measure their own personal circumstances and how the overall economy is performing. In the latestNBC/Journal poll, 40% ranked gas prices as the most important economic issue facing the country. Second to that, 18% said "the gap between rich and poor." Unemployment rated near the bottom with 5%.
The poll shows that the war in Iraq continues to be Americans' top concern, but also reflects ongoing unease about the economy. While it continues to do well by many measures, over the last several years, the following economic "truths" have become no longer quite so self-evident to many:
- that if you work hard, you'll get ahead;
- that health insurance will keep you from going bankrupt over medical costs;
- that owning a home is a means to financial security;
- that real estate and stock investments always increase in value;
- that Social Security will always be there;
- that your company retirement fund is safe; and,
- that your children will face a brighter future than you.
The Administration has begun to recognize that the gap between rich and poor is a concern. In his debut speech earlier this week, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson "acknowledged that the gap between the best- and worst-paid workers has continued to widen on President Bush's watch," per the Wall Street Journal. Other Republicans remain focused on those indicators which point to a strong economy. At a Senate GOP rally this week, Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah talked up economic growth and said that notwithstanding what some "Hollywood comedians" and "some of the scare people on cable TV" are saying, "the recovery has produced an enormous and exciting economic performance."
Meanwhile, the legislative package containing a $2.10 federal minimum wage hike went down in defeat in the Senate last night, sending the two parties out on recess arguing over who killed the increase. Democrats charge that Republicans doomed the measure by linking it to a "hypocritical" series of tax breaks for the wealthy and for businesses. Republicans counter that Democrats had their chance to vote on a measure to help the poor and didn't in order to try to score political points against the GOP.
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