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Published: Tuesday, 12/11/2001

Good war news cuts unity on Capitol Hill


WASHINGTON – Almost the moment the Taliban's control was broken in Afghanistan, partisanship came roaring back to the nation's capital as Republicans and Democrats began to prepare for next year's crucial congressional elections.

Last weekend, as it appeared the Taliban gave up its stronghold at Kandahar, Republicans and Democrats began to plan for harsher treatment of each other on domestic issues.

Republicans decided it is safe to make the Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the poster boy for a GOP attack on Democrats as a partisan leader blocking the President's domestic agenda.

Thus, Vice President Dick Cheney denounced him as an “obstructionist'' for disagreeing with President Bush on the contents of an economic stimulus bill.

He criticized Mr. Daschle for opposing the administration's plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy development and delaying consideration of an energy bill until next year.

Democrats have agreed that attacking Mr. Bush would be foolish because of his continuing high poll ratings. But Democrats think voters are ready for Democratic jabs at his tax-cut policies.

In the wake of a Democratic poll released yesterday showing new concern about the Bush administration's handling of the economy and claiming that 55 percent of Americans want a new round of tax cuts delayed, Democrats are orchestrating their message that a new round of GOP-pushed tax cuts would be bad for the economy.

Leading the charge, right after Mr. Cheney spoke, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) argued that the Bush plan to stimulate the economy with tax cuts “just doesn't make sense.'' It's a “triumph of ideology over reality,'' she said, because the non-Social Security surplus is gone.

When Rep. Bill Thomas (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, walked out of stalled talks on tax cuts vs. displaced worker assistance last week, Republicans were braced for Mr. Daschle's retort: “Republicans have walked out on talks, walked out on unemployed workers, and walked out on the economy. And that is an outrage.''

The poll of 1,000 likely voters by Stan Greenberg, who polled for the Clinton White House, found that the economy and jobs edge out terrorism and security as the major concern for Americans, compared with a month ago. He said by “an extraordinary” 58-18 percent, voters say they will vote for a member of Congress who focuses mainly on the economy and domestic issues, not terrorism and security.

Democratic consultant Bob Shrum said that while “Americans trust the President on war and security and appreciate the fact that Democrats support the President,'' they think the central task of Congress is the economy, health care, prescription drugs, and education - not war.''

Mr. Shrum added, “Democrats will walk away with the public'' (in next year's elections) if they can make the case that tax cuts would benefit corporations more than most Americans. He admitted the public now thinks Democrats made up their criticism of the GOP plan passed by the House and failed to tell the public one provision would eliminate the corporate alternative minimum tax and permit companies to claim 15 years of accumulated tax credits from the minimum tax. That, he said, is the Medicare issue of 2002.

Control of the Senate, now held by the Democrats by just one vote, and the House, just barely in the hands of Republicans, will be decided by voters in 11 months. Ordinarily the political machinery would have started to grind months ago. Because of Sept. 11, the war on terrorism, and the physical presence of American soldiers at risk in Afghanistan, politicians have been reluctant to be seen as openly campaigning.

But with good news on the war front and the pressures of time, hundreds of others must start to raise funds in earnest to have a chance of winning next November.

The issues for both parties are being hand-picked by national party leaders. Republicans last weekend signaled that they intend to blame Democrats for worsening the recession by delaying the economic stimulus package. The message from Democrats is that they are in lockstep in support for Mr. Bush's conduct of the war but not on health care, lost jobs, and a return to deficits. Democrats will not focus on military tribunals or perceived threats to civil liberties. Mr. Greenberg said he didn't poll on those because polling by others shows Americans overwhelmingly unworried about them.

While some think Republicans have an edge next year because of Mr. Bush's popularity, Democrats are encouraged because in last month's election he did not have coattails. Democrats won gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey and two of three mayoralty races, winning Los Angeles and Houston while losing New York City.

Partly because of disappointment over those results, Mr. Bush readily accepted the resignation of Virginia Gov. James Gilmore as chair of the Republican National Committee and named Marc Racicot, a loyal friend, former governor of Montana, a lobbyist who once represented Enron, and the GOP point man during the Florida vote count a year ago - firm evidence the message for next year's GOP candidates will be directed from the White House.

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