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By Charles Babington

Washington Post

Republican congressional leaders return to Washington today to confront a political landscape that is considerably more problematic than the one they left two weeks ago, when the House and Senate adjourned for Easter recess.

The searingly emotional Terri Schiavo case divided Republican-leaning voters and drew Congress into an extraordinary Palm Sunday intervention, which is now fueling claims that party leaders are out of step with mainstream America.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), already battling ethics charges, added to his combative reputation by bitterly attacking state and federal judges who rejected pleas to keep the brain-damaged woman alive. Meanwhile, his allies were rattled by criticisms from several conservative publications, including a Wall Street Journal editorial that accused DeLay of abuses that "sooner or later will sweep him out."

President Bush's top priority, restructuring Social Security, made little if any progress despite his all-out campaigning during the recess, key lawmakers said. And the Senate seems closer than ever to a major collision over judicial nominations, a topic made even more emotional by the role of federal judges in the Schiavo case.

Aides to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said yesterday that he soon will offer Democrats a compromise on the long-standing impasse, even though a growing number of conservative activists are pressing him to force a showdown now. Democrats predict the offer will be too flimsy to entice them to stop filibustering several appellate court nominees, but the mere fact that Frist is talking of negotiations, they say, convinces them he lacks the 51 votes he needs to change the filibuster rules in a chamber with 55 GOP members.

The mixture of issues and events, some top Republicans say, puts the party at a precarious juncture, where it needs to reassure voters that its leaders are ethical and focused on hearth-and-home issues such as jobs, affordable gasoline and secure retirements.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) says Democrats suffered major setbacks in the 1990s when an ethics-challenged leader -- House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who resigned in 1989 -- became a larger symbol of his party than its platform issues. "That's a cocktail for disaster," Graham said. If a political leader's personal problems are coupled with "some policy decisions that are disconnected to the public, then you've got an opening" for trouble, he said. "If we don't watch it, it could happen to us."

Graham is wary of some Republicans' calls for further Schiavo-inspired legislation, such as a federal definition of "persistent vegetative state." The states, he said, "are capable of defining end-of-life terms."

Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said several national surveys found that 60 to 80 percent of Americans opposed Congress's March 20 intervention in the Schiavo case. Federal courts promptly rejected the lawmakers' directive to review a series of Florida court decisions allowing Schiavo's feeding tube to be removed. One appellate judge chastised Congress and Bush for their actions.

Fabrizio said voters "are probably wondering why we can't get deficit reduction or tax reform or Social Security reform as quickly as we got the Schiavo bill" from the Republican-controlled Congress. Because conservative Christian activists were seen as pushing the legislation, he said, "that's a symbol of what your [party's] priorities are, and you'd better show them another symbol."

Also during the recess, former GOP senator John C. Danforth of Missouri, an ordained Episcopal minister, wrote a New York Times op-ed article criticizing his party's emphasis on opposing stem cell research, same-sex marriage and Schiavo's husband. "Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians," he wrote.

DeLay hinted last week that Congress might try to impeach some of the judges involved in the Schiavo case, but other prominent Republicans are urging calm. "I think there will be some legislation out there [dealing with end-of-life issues], but I don't think there will be a mainstream effort to put this in the top 10 priorities," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a member of the House GOP leadership. "We're hearing a lot about the prices of gasoline," he said, and "the timing is right to pass the energy bill."

Kingston dismissed suggestions that DeLay's problems could hurt the party. He said he has held more than a dozen town hall meetings in his district recently and "I have had not one single question, even from political followers, about him."

With the Schiavo case dominating national news during the two-week break, Bush made modest progress in his 60-day campaign to build support for adding personal accounts to Social Security, key players said. "I believe it's about where we left off two weeks ago," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said at the end of the recess. He is the chairman of the Finance Committee, which is responsible for Social Security legislation.

But Grassley said he is optimistic that support for the president's efforts will grow as more Americans realize that Social Security faces long-term solvency problems.

Grassley told Republican committee staff members yesterday that he will press forward with Social Security legislation this year. At a meeting attended by staff members and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Grassley said he will call a Social Security hearing before the end of the month and plans to put a bill before the committee in July, according to GOP aides who attended the meeting. Only last week, Grassley told reporters he did not believe Social Security legislation could be passed this year.

But underscoring the difficult road ahead, Grassley said the president's Social Security plan would swell the national debt tremendously if the move is not accompanied by significant cuts to promised benefits.

Under Bush's proposal for individual accounts, the national debt would more than triple, from about 40 percent of the economy, or gross domestic product, to 150 percent of GDP by 2072. "That does not sound like something the Democrats would sign on to," the aide said Hatch remarked.

Like Bush, Grassley is focusing mainly on the proposal to allow private accounts, which would divert a portion of workers' payroll taxes into stock and bond portfolios that would follow them into retirement.

To some, the darkest cloud above Congress is the Senate's looming clash over judicial nominees. Democrats have used the filibuster -- which can be stopped only by 60 votes in the 100-member chamber -- to thwart several of Bush's most conservative appellate court appointees. Republican leaders have threatened to change Senate rules to bar such filibusters, which would require 51 votes. Democrats say they would respond by bringing the Senate to a standstill, hence the scenario's moniker, "the nuclear option."

Yesterday, dozens of conservative groups released a letter urging Frist to end the filibusters "at the earliest possible moment." Some of the signers predicted Frist has the votes he needs, but others said the vote count is uncertain and may remain so for weeks.

If anything, the Schiavo case has heightened tensions over the judicial stalemate. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the woman's death "should awaken Americans to the problems of the courts." More conservative judges are needed, he said, even though others noted that several of the judges involved in the Schiavo case are Republican appointees.

Even some Republicans who strongly oppose the Democrats' filibusters are worried that the Schiavo case suggests a GOP drift away from nuts-and-bolts legislation and toward the more polarizing agenda of religious conservatives. "I didn't come here to make a statement," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former majority leader. "I came here to get results."

Intervening in Schiavo's case, he said, "was the morally right thing to do," but "it really bothered me that the federal government would inject itself into a family medical case."

Staff writers Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.

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For Immediate Release: 
April 5, 2005