WASHINGTON – Republicans controlling Congress will focus on traditional strong suits of national defense and battling terrorism in a brief pre-election session that's a prelude to the battle for control of Capitol Hill.
The September session kicking off this week will focus on security issues — the defense and homeland security budgets, border and port security, as well as efforts to give congressional blessing to the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretaps of terrorist suspects.
"Now is not the time for a weak and indecisive approach that has been offered by Capitol Hill Democrats," House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week. "That's why Republicans are working to keep America safe through policies based on strength and purpose, rather than confusion and defeat."
Playing the national security card worked as Capitol Hill Republicans made election gains in 2002 and President Bush won re-election two years ago.
Democrats vow the third time won't be a charm — and they're backed up by opinion polls showing the traditional GOP edge on terrorism and national security has slipped as the war in Iraq drags on.
Both House and Senate Democrats vow to press for no-confidence votes this month on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld over his stewardship of the war. However, a separate vote on legalizing wiretapping of terrorists without a warrant from a judge could put them in an awkward position.
Democrats and their core liberal supporters have strong reservations about the warrantless wiretapping program. But if they vote against GOP legislation propping up the legal authority for it, Republican campaign operatives are certain to cast them as weak on terrorism.
House Democrats also are demanding votes to increase the minimum wage, give the government the ability to negotiate for lower Medicare prescription drug prices and fully implement recommendations from the bipartisan 9/11 commission. They promise to try to block Congress from adjourning unless their demands are met.
"For members of Congress to hit the campaign trail while urgent national needs remain unmet would be a serious abdication of our responsibilities," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democrats said in a Sept. 1 letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "We reject assertions that the people's business can wait until after the November election."
September's congressional agenda contains several items that Republicans simply must do before House members and senators can go home and campaign. They include appropriations bills funding the military and homeland security as well as a defense policy bill for next year.
But a raft of bills to pay for domestic programs are laden with politically difficult budgets for popular programs such as health research, education and law enforcement grants to states and local governments. They'll have to wait for a postelection lame duck session colored by November's results.
The first item on the Senate agenda is defense spending. A port security measure is likely to follow. The House gets off to a slower start this week as the top bill would outlaw slaughtering horses for human consumption. Bills legalizing military tribunals and the terrorist surveillance programs should follow shortly.
Efforts to enact a broad immigration policy bill have bogged down in acrimony between House and Senate Republicans. House Republicans pushed through a tough border security and enforcement bill, while a bipartisan Senate bill would give illegal immigrants a chance to gain legal status.
Pre-election action is likely to focus on beefing up security along the border with Mexico while leaving broader immigration reform for another day.
The White House is pushing Congress to agree on an energy bill to expand drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The Senate, before leaving for the August recess, passed it, but the House is insisting on its version that also would allow new drilling along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Senate GOP leaders have White House backing for their more modest measure.
A vote is iffy at best on another White House-sought measure: giving Bush authority to attempt blocking "pork barrel" without having to veto everything else with it in broad spending bills.
A bill by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., to create a huge searchable catalog on federal grants and contracts could advance after a remarkable campaign by Internet bloggers to expose senators blocking it.
Unable to move on broader lobbying reform, House GOP leaders say they will try to get new House rules making it more difficult to surreptitiously insert pet projects, or earmarks, in legislation. The rules also would identify the sponsors of specific projects.
The Senate may vote on confirming U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. Bush appointed Bolton to the post on a temporary basis a year ago after Democrats blocked a vote on his nomination.