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Security Is Atop GOP's Agenda

In the run-up to the elections, Republican leaders in Congress are planning to highlight issues they believe play to the party's strengths.

September 05, 2006|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — It's going to be "Security September" on Capitol Hill.

With GOP control of the House and Senate hanging in the balance in the November midterm elections, Republican leaders want to use the monthlong session that begins today when Congress reconvenes to press what has traditionally been their biggest advantage over Democrats: national security.

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner issued a statement last week emphasizing the theme Republicans plan to hammer. In fact, he reminded voters four times in one sentence.

"From homeland security to national security to border security, House Republicans will focus first and foremost on addressing the safety and security needs of the American people throughout the month of September," Boehner said.

First on the agenda will be spending bills for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Though both parties will seize the opportunity to debate terrorism and the war in Iraq, these are must-pass measures.

But the rest of the GOP's security agenda is likely to produce stubborn opposition from Democrats, especially the proposals to give legislative approval to the Bush administration's domestic spying program and a new plan for using military tribunals to try terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

On the tribunals issue, many Democrats and even some Republicans have suggested President Bush's approach may need to be modified to give detainees greater opportunities to defend themselves.

But the White House and Republican leaders in Congress believe events last month -- particularly the uncovering of an alleged terrorist plot in Britain and a federal court ruling that the domestic surveillance program is unconstitutional -- improve the likelihood that they can enact the tough laws they want in these areas instead of compromising with critics.

They also calculate that, whatever form final legislation might take, debating the tribunal system and domestic surveillance shows the GOP not only focusing on security but taking steps to support tough approaches to the problem.

"Republicans want to get a vote on the record that shows they're strong on national security and intent on taking a tough stand on terrorist suspects," Boehner spokesman Kevin Madden said.

Other items on the agenda, such as immigration and energy costs, are also expected to be painted with the security brush. Gaining better control of the nation's borders and reducing its dependence on imported oil will be presented as vital elements in the war on terrorism.

House and Senate Republicans remain split over the specifics of immigration policy, however: House Republicans insist on "border security first" and many GOP senators -- as well as most Democrats -- favor a "comprehensive" approach that would combine tighter security with a path for illegal immigrants to achieve legal status.

At least some House GOP members believe swift action should be taken to rescind the most controversial provision in the immigration bill the House passed in December -- making illegal border-crossing a felony. The provision, little noticed when it was approved, sparked nationwide protests this spring and summer.

"There's a political and policy alignment that is favorable to get it done sooner rather than later," said a senior Republican aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about internal party discussions.

When it comes to energy legislation, Democrats and Republicans remain divided. Republicans generally favor increasing domestic production of oil and gas, including a proposal to relax the long-standing ban on offshore drilling, whereas Democrats generally favor increased conservation and environmental protections.

Both parties are conscious of voters' concerns over high gasoline prices. One of the first orders of business this session will be hearings into pipeline problems in Alaska that shut down part of the largest U.S. oil field last month.

At least three committees have scheduled hearings, and Republican lawmakers -- whom Democrats have attacked as too cozy with the oil industry -- are likely to give industry officials a public grilling for not properly maintaining the pipelines.

On national security, what has worked for Republicans usually hasn't worked as well for Democrats. But both parties say that this year, they think talking about security, terrorism and the war works to their advantage.

For their part, Democrats say they intend to use the spending bills for the Defense and Homeland Security departments to criticize Republicans over the Iraq war and highlight ongoing threats to airports and seaports -- issues they believe play to Democratic strengths.

"The more Democrats talk about it, the more they look like they are trying to politicize it," said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

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