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Democrats Turn To Traditional Issues

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi are joined by Sen. Max Baucus, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. John Dingell after signing the Children's Health Insurance Program bill on September 28, 2007.
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By The Politico's Marty Kady II

Congressional Democrats rode anti-war sentiment to victory last fall - but they are staking their success in the final months of this year's calendar on more traditional domestic issues amid concern that the war may not be the potent political issue it once was by Election Day 2008. 

With few Iraq votes expected in the next several weeks - a marked departure from the first nine months of the new Democratic-controlled Congress - Democrats are trying to build an agenda that's heavy on health care, community policing, housing, tax reform and other issues. 

"Iraq has always been the 800-pound gorilla in the room, but there are other issues to deal with," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "We did well with our initial agenda. Now we need to move on to a broader agenda." 

But there's another driving factor under the radar: a latent concern that Iraq may not be as favorable a political issue for Democrats a year from now, as images of brigades of U.S. troops coming home could well be flickering on American television screens. 

"They've run millions of dollars of ads and had untold rallies and protests, but they're actually losing approval" on the war, said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "How's it going to look when troops start coming home next year and, while most people are holding a 'Welcome Home' sign, they're left holding a MoveOn.org ad or Code Pink banner?" 

Toward that end, Democrats are taking care of their domestic policy base, much to the chagrin of out-of-power Republicans. The labor movement, marginalized on Capitol Hill in recent years, already has one victory with the minimum wage increase signed into law and is now coalescing behind the push to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program. 

At the same time, trade deals have stalled amid a protectionist sentiment. 

Looking ahead, Democrats are promising to complete negotiations on an energy bill, amend the No Child Left Behind law and fix the alternative minimum tax, while using appropriations bills to highlight domestic spending priorities. 

Additionally, as always, polls are a factor. A majority of voters in an Oct. 3 Gallup Poll support the partial withdrawal plan proposed by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. 

Meanwhile, a significant majority in a recent Washington Post poll showed that voters trust Democrats more than Republicans on health care by a 2-1 ratio, further illustrating why Democrats are pushing so hard on the children's health bill. 

"They have to diversify their portfolio. There's no question about that," said Ross K. Baker, a congressional expert and professor of political science at Rutgers University. "President Bush has handed them a great opportunity to unify around traditional Democratic social issues." 

His veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program bill - scheduled for an override vote Oct. 18 in the House - is really just a starting point.

Already, giddy Democrats are embracing an agenda that would not have been possible under a Republican Congress, or even in the 1990s, when the economy was booming and President Clinton's top domestic accomplishments included welfare reform and NAFTA. 

"We feel good. We feel the wind is at our backs," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Senate campaign committee, whose charge in 2008 is to expand the 51-49 Democratic majority in the Senate. "The best thing you can have in an election is the feeling that the voters agree with your values."

Iraq will undoubtedly remain a major issue, but at least in the Senate, Reid is turning away from Iraq votes for a while.

"There's nothing else they can offer - they've tried everything," said Baker, the political scientist from Rutgers. "Harry Reid doesn't want to keep going to the well of the Senate and losing."

Republicans caution, though, that the return of traditional liberal issues is a mistake for Democrats, citing key economic indicators such as job growth that show the economy does not need further government intervention.

"Common-sense Republican policies of lower taxes have kept our economy strong and allowed our businesses to grow," said Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the House minority whip. "They want to impose a new gas tax to fund bike paths. They proposed an unnecessary tax increase in the farm bill. They fund their government-run health care expansion with higher taxes on poorer Americans."

But what Schumer and Democrats believe is that uncertainty in the housing market, the increasing number of uninsured, fears about globalization and anti-free-trade sentiment among voters will drive support for a more activist domestic policy agenda.

In the House, for example, Democrats, with the help of Republicans, pushed through a bill that would loosen the rules on taxes related to mortgage foreclosures. And the Senate, through its debate of domestic appropriations bills, will have plenty of time to discuss items like stem cells, education and Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.

The Senate is in recess this week but is returning next week to the appropriations bill for the Justice, Commerce and State departments, followed by the mother of all domestic spending measures - the Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations bill.

Members of the tax committees in both the House and the Senate, meanwhile, have been huddling behind closed doors to discuss a way to overhaul the alternative minimum tax, which has increasingly hit the middle class.

With all the activity on the domestic policy front, though, other pressing issues have been on hold. Trade agreements with Peru, Panama and Colombia remain in limbo, and the Bush administration's efforts to push through these deals have stalled amid opposition from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).