Focus on ‘Home Front’

Seeking to score late-round political points as Republicans struggle to find an exit strategy, Congressional Democrats are mounting a four-week offensive to bring attention to what they say is the failure of President Bush and the GOP to address key domestic concerns.

Dubbing their campaign “Operation Home Front,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) will lead the charge and attempt to highlight perceived GOP weaknesses on health care, the economy and jobs, veterans’ benefits, education and the environment.

Senior aides said top Democrats believe they can end the first half of the 108th on a high note if they can effectively point out Republican failures on domestic policy. In so doing, Democrats also will attempt to lessen emphasis on the Iraq conflict, a topic on which they face their own internal divisions and have endured withering criticism from Republicans.

“The focus has been on Iraq for a long time, and we will continue that,” said a House Democratic leadership aide. “But we have some domestic issues we want to make sure we focus on.”

Democrats will implement their strategy by holding leadership press events and encouraging Members to hold issue-based events in their districts. In the Senate, Democrats said they would use procedural tactics to try and trigger action on their agenda items which could include boosting spending on education and increasing the minimum wage.

Daschle and Pelosi unofficially kicked off the effort Tuesday with an event unveiling a minority health initiative. Next week, Democrats will focus their efforts on the economy and job creation.

Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Republicans have made great progress this session on the domestic front, from energy to Medicare to the economy. The Democrats’ latest gambit, he said, is just one in a series of unsuccessful attempts to make political gains.

“They’ve been banging away at this president on the domestic agenda since he took office,” he said. “None of it sticks.”

But Democrats insist they will stay with the approach and add more domestic priorities to the five already in the plan if Congress remains in session beyond the next four weeks.

“We’ll go [with the strategy] until we go home,” said one House Democratic leadership aide. “It depends on how long we’re here. We want to make sure the American public gets the message about what we stand for.”

While Democrats will attempt to use Capitol Hill as their bully pulpit for as long as Congress remains in session, party leaders will also package the message so that Democratic candidates are able to echo their themes on the campaign trail.

“All of our people will be using them,” Sen. John Corzine (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said of the talking points. “I think you will hear a whole series of these ‘Home Front’ initiatives.”

As Democrats grapple with Senate contests in a number of politically difficult states, the New Jersey Democrat said the DSCC would ensure the message is tailored to each individual candidate.

“It fights differently in different states, but Operation Home Front will be right at the centerpiece” of the Democratic message, Corzine said.

Sen. George Allen (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Democrats will struggle to explain to voters why they have blocked many of President Bush’s legislative initiatives.

“The Democrats must feel that their negative, dour obstructionism is being recognized or noticed by the American people,” Allen said. “So now they are going to try and act as if they are actually for doing something positive, when in fact what you are going to find on issue after issue that we are going through here is they are going to continue to try and thwart the agenda.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) said the Democratic exit plan is “an important approach to take” as the session labors to a close. Republicans, he said, have failed on the domestic front, and Democrats need to point out those failures and offer alternatives.

“We ought not to ignore on the domestic front what is important to the American public,” he said. “When Democrats focus on the issues that are important to American families in terms of jobs, education, health care, investment in infrastructure etc., etc., we win.”

Senate Democratic Policy Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) said “Operation Home Front” is designed to contrast Democrats’ priorities with the Republican legislative agenda, and he accused the GOP of forsaking domestic problems to rebuild Iraq.

Dorgan said Democrats are supportive of the troops and are eager for the soldiers to return home as soon as possible, but added that Democrats would question why President Bush is so eager to pour billions of dollars into Iraq when the U.S. infrastructure needs immediate attention.

“It is just a matter of being able to make the point that it is time to take care of things here at home as well as we would like the same urgency and the same interest in dealing with the needs in this country,” Dorgan said.

But Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) scoffed at Dorgan’s charge and said Republicans’ efforts to improve the nation’s educational system, boost the economy and provide a prescription drug benefit for seniors is proof of their commitment.

“It is a very hollow argument about a party that can no longer find traction,” Craig said.

Dorgan acknowledged that staying in session helps Democrats counter the White House, because they can use Capitol Hill to broadcast a unified message to a national audience.

“We have the ability to use the Senate floor and do press conferences and engage in other approaches here to make our point,” he said. “The point is there are a certain amount of resources available to be spent and the majority party wants to spend them on Iraq.”