WASHINGTON – While lawmakers insist that domestic priorities will not be waylaid by the war in Iraq, Democrats and Republicans are poised to start pointing fingers if certain issues do not get addressed in the upcoming congressional session.
Both sides said they will be working on an ambitious timetable for critical domestic issues like the economy, healthcare and budget appropriations, even as they accuse the other side of failing to get those issues settled by now.
“We’re not going to slow down,” said Jonathan Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. “I think the House will be working very aggressively on a domestic agenda.”
According to Jay Carson, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Senate Democrats are just as eager to push forward with legislation designed to boost jobs and the economy, prescription drugs benefits for seniors and homeland security -- all holdover issues from the last Congress.
“Sen. Daschle feels that it is critically important that we don’t lose sight of economic security, in addition to national security, and that we don’t lose sight of important domestic issues as a result of the war,” Carson said.
However, with a dig at Republicans' control of Congress, Carson added, “It’s certainly been slow getting started in the Senate so far this session.”
Not surprisingly, Republicans take the opposite view, saying that they have kept the agenda rolling on Capitol Hill, despite Daschle’s failure to get issues like the economic stimulus plan, prescription drugs, or even a 2003 budget resolution, passed last year in the Senate.
“We would be in a better place economically if Daschle hadn’t been the head of the Senate last year,” charged Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, who said that unlike the Senate, the House made sure “no one could accuse us of being a do-nothing Congress in these parts.”
“I can’t tell you how many pro-economy bills got stalled,” in the Senate, he said, accusing the Democrats of stalling on measures like pension security and getting rid of the marriage penalty tax so they could blame Republicans for bad economic conditions in the November elections.
“The Democrats really banked on the whole ‘dips in the Dow mean gains at the ballot box’ idea,” Grella said. “We’re pleased to have a leader in the Senate who wants the economy to grow.”
Carson said the Republican accusations over Daschle’s term as majority leader are “simply not true,” and said Republicans have put more energy into appointing conservatives to the judicial bench and banning partial birth abortion than anything else this session.
Both the House and Senate passed a ban on the late-term abortion procedure this month, a bill that President Bush is likely to sign.
Meanwhile, there remains an ongoing Democratic filibuster over Bush’s nomination of Judge Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He is one of several judicial nominations that Republicans have promised to push hard in the upcoming months despite Democratic resistance.
“It’s hard not to question how much the Republicans think these [domestic] issues are pressing when we spend almost a month on a judicial nomination and a week on a controversial abortion procedure,” said Carson. “Especially when we have millions out of work and homeland security issues incredibly pressing right now."
According to the latest reading of the gross domestic product, growth only increased 1.4 percent in the last quarter, compared to 4 percent registered in the same quarter in 2002. Consumers are more cautious, with spending flat last month. The nation lost 308,000 jobs in February.
To help reinvigorate the sluggish economy, Bush has called for $726 billion worth of tax cuts over a 10-year period. The House passed a 2004 budget resolution last week that included all of the president's tax cuts. The Senate, however, passed a budget on Wednesday with half that amount, while allocating $400 billion for a prescription drug benefit, which the Senate hadn’t acted on in the previous session.
But even as the two parties quibble over a half-trillion dollars here or there, politicians on both sides of the aisle say the primary focus right now is on getting the Pentagon the money to wage the war in Iraq successfully.
“We are concerned right now with what is going on in our Armed Forces and we will move on appropriately with respect to current events,” said Guillermo Meneses, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.
However, he added, "There are domestic issues that need to be addressed and I think Americans expect for democracy to continue in times of peace as well as war."
Aside from the $74.7 billion war supplemental, which was proposed this week by the White House, other issues both sides say are sure to come up include Medicare modernization, more economic growth measures, energy legislation held over from last year and the reauthorization of the massive transportation bill that gives monies to the states for all federally funded transportation projects.
“We’re going to be judged by our results, not our rhetoric,” said Grella, pointing out the House’s success in passing a 2004 budget resolution, a cloning ban and medical liability legislation in the last two months.
“That’s what the American people elected us to do,” he said. “It’s evident that even with the state of war, we were able to keep on schedule.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.