WASHINGTON — When Missouri Sen. Jim Talent rolled out his first television campaign ad, the embattled first-term Republican focused on a simple message: "It's not what you promise that matters. It's what you do."
It's a point that neatly defines the rhetorical battle that has broken out between the two political parties now that Congress has recessed until early September.
As lawmakers embark on a frenzied month of campaigning ahead of November midterm elections, the record of what the GOP-controlled Congress has done -- and not done -- is shaping up as a central dispute in the fight for control of Capitol Hill.
In the face of failures to clear major legislation on several fronts -- including immigration, military tribunals and ethics reform -- House and Senate Republicans are tirelessly talking up achievements such as tax breaks and support for domestic security.
Democrats, smelling victory this fall, are sharpening their attacks on a GOP-run Congress they compare to the one President Truman labeled "do-nothing" in his successful 1948 campaign.
With voters in a sour mood, the minority party is increasingly betting that voter disappointment with Congress' accomplishments will be its ticket back to power. Democrats need to pick up six seats in the Senate and 15 in the House to claim the majority in each chamber.
In Missouri, Talent's Democratic opponent, state Auditor Claire McCaskill, is hammering him for voting against expanding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research -- a measure that foundered because Congress lacked the votes to override President Bush's veto. According to some polls, McCaskill has the lead in the closely watched race.
"The Democrats have the congressional Republicans on the run, " said Don Kettl, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who focuses on public policy. "The Democrats can't win with a 'do-nothing Congress' charge alone. But it adds to the drumbeat of their campaign that Republicans can't govern. And so far, it's paying off."
But whether it provides the payoff Democrats are hoping for on election day remains in doubt. They have tried and failed before to ride the "do-nothing" message to victory, most recently in 2004, when Republicans ended up expanding their majorities in both chambers.
And even as public discontent mounted about the war in Iraq, about President Bush and about Congress, the Democratic Party for months struggled with its pitch, testing a succession of slogans before rolling out the "do-nothing" campaign.
"It's amazing," said Joe Garecht, a Pennsylvania political consultant who has worked for Republican candidates. This is Democrats' "best chance in over a decade for recapturing the House of Representatives, yet they can't pull together and develop a simple, coherent and courageous message.... What are we left with? Vague notions of 'do-nothingness,' some talk of a 'culture of corruption.' "
Still, the notion that the Republican Congress is failing is underscored this year by a dearth of breakthroughs on major issues, experts say.
Lawmakers are at loggerheads over how to overhaul immigration policy, with Republicans split about the best way to deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.
Congress has not developed a system for prosecuting terrorism suspects, despite a recent Supreme Court decision rejecting the Bush administration's use of military tribunals.
No major changes have been enacted to the Social Security system, which Bush identified last year as an approaching crisis.
And there has been no significant overhaul of ethics guidelines for Congress, despite pledges from Republicans after the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal exposed a web of influence-peddling on Capitol Hill.
It isn't a very impressive record, said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey who has studied Congress for 30 years.
"The big successes were almost entirely in the area of personnel," most significantly the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices, Baker said. "On the whole, the main courses never made it to the table, and the nation had to be content with side dishes."
As Republican senators left town last week, they scoffed at the "do-nothing" label trumpeted by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other leading Democrats.
"I'm enormously proud of the progress we've made on behalf of the people we represent," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said on the Senate floor early Friday as the chamber prepared to adjourn for its summer break.
As the recess neared, Frist repeatedly took time out from legislative business to tout what his party had done.
He pointed to its efforts to bolster domestic security with an extension of the Patriot Act to let the government keep using expanded powers to combat terrorism.
He celebrated the extension of 2003 tax cuts on dividends and capital gains, provisions he said were helping to stimulate the economy.