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Congress' Unity Fades, Political Polarity Returns

Government: The economic stimulus debate brings gridlock among lawmakers on divisive issues.


WASHINGTON — For two months, Congress moved with rare speed and unity to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks. That legislative flurry, culminating in last week's passage of a measure to beef up airline security, reflected a consensus that partisan stalemate was a luxury lawmakers could ill afford in the war on terrorism.

But now, with the Taliban regime falling in Afghanistan and the sense of national crisis on the wane, Capitol Hill is returning to business as usual: gridlock.

Legislation to stimulate the economy with tax cuts and unemployment assistance collapsed in a political heap in the Senate last week. No one knows for sure how--or even if--it will be revived.

Issues that have been eclipsed by the terrorist attacks--like election procedures and campaign finance reform--are beginning to peek out from under the legislative bedcovers.

And after enjoying wartime deference to his requests, President Bush now has to work harder to persuade Congress--even members of his own party--to hold the line on spending.

"There's less of a sense of crisis now," said Catherine Rudder, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia. "That lessens the need to act quickly and cooperate so fully with the president."

House and Senate approval of the aviation security bill on Friday capped an extraordinary period of legislative productivity for the Capitol, as lawmakers passed an array of measures that will increase the size and scope of government for years to come.

Congress gave Bush broad discretion to deploy the military in fighting terrorism and passed a bill significantly expanding police power. It approved a big infusion of cash to respond to the attacks and to bail out the battered airline industry. Those expenditures guarantee that the government, recently awash in budget surpluses, will revert to deficit spending this year--and perhaps beyond.

Some critics complained that Congress took too long to clear the airline safety bill, which will revamp how the nation's airports and passengers are protected. But by the usual standards of congressional action, the bill's two-month journey to passage came at lightning speed.

But while lawmakers managed to craft the war-related measures, airline bailout and anti-terrorism bills largely on a bipartisan basis, Republicans and Democrats have gone their separate ways on economic stimulus legislation: tax cuts, unemployment aid and additional spending for domestic security and infrastructure projects.

The GOP-controlled House passed a bill filled with corporate tax cuts, arguing that the best way to bolster the economy is to give benefits to businesses that create jobs. Senate Democrats, seeing a different economic solution, wrote an alternative that would provide more extensive benefits for the unemployed and money for infrastructure and homeland security.

The result is a conflict that has revived traditional ideological divisions between the parties and features competing special interests--business versus labor--that form their core political constituencies. Fueling the debate's partisan cast is the realization on both sides that next year's congressional elections could turn heavily on economic conditions, depending on the status of the counter-terrorism effort.

The earlier war-related measures passed by broad margins, but the House economic stimulus bill passed narrowly, along strict party lines. Debate on the Senate alternative last week collapsed into partisan deadlock, with neither party able to muster the votes to prevail. Senate leaders have said they want to convene high-level negotiations to craft a compromise, but so far House Republicans are balking.

Some argue that one reason the economic debate has bogged down is because Bush has not intervened more aggressively to break the impasse.

"The president is basking in high approval ratings," said Will Marshall, head of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank. "But the president has yet to use a lot of the political capital he's banked to change the contours of the debate on the economy."

When Congress returns from its Thanksgiving recess, it also still must make final decisions on the government's annual budget, and on this increasingly partisan debate Bush has tried to use some of his political clout. He threatened, for instance, to veto any bill that exceeds spending caps he and Congress previously agreed to.

New York's Request for More Aid Stirs Debate

One challenge erupted over the $40 billion in emergency aid approved within days of the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush recently faced a rebellion among House Republicans from New York, who joined with Democrats to demand more aid to help their state recover and rebuild.

Even a concerted lobbying campaign by Vice President Dick Cheney initially failed to keep the New York Republicans in line. However, administration officials apparently quelled the rebellion Friday by promising to shift more aid to New York from money already appropriated for other programs.

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