Political Wrangling Returns To D.C.

Actor Martin Sheen poses at the after party for the Ante Up for Africa celebrity poker tournament during the World Series of Poker at the Voodoo Lounge at the Rio Hotel & Casino Thursday, July 5, 2007, in Las Vegas.
When President Bush urged Americans after the Sept. 11 attacks to "go about their business" as usual, Congress, it seems, took his request literally.

Within weeks, lawmakers and the Bush administration dispensed with their calls for harmony and were again sparring, this time over legislation proposed as a direct response to the terrorist attacks.

Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein thought the post-Sept. 11 cooperation between Congress and the White House would continue a little bit longer.

The unity "ended earlier than expected," Ornstein told "I thought it would last until at least mid-October."

Swept away after the attacks were anticipated fractious Capitol Hill debates on the patients' bill of rights, campaign finance reform, education reform, the Bush energy package and missile defense.

In their place is a set of bills created in the wake of Sept. 11, which is meeting resistance from all sides.

Initially, unity was the theme as Congress doubled, to $40 billion, an administration request for funds to combat terrorism and help pay for recovery efforts. That bill passed easily.

"We are shoulder to shoulder. We are in complete agreement that we will act together as one," House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said on Sept. 13. "We are working here in the Congress in a completely nonpartisan way."

President Bush applauded the new harmony on the Hill, saying he "was touched by their response, their encouragement and their willingness to work together."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said, "One thing that happens here in this place is when America suffers, and when people perpetrate acts against this country, we as a Congress and a government stand united."

That unity, however, lasted barely three weeks.

Ornstein explained that debate is a "natural impulse of politics." And as lawmakers move on from the tragedy, "they'll move back eventually ... (expressing) a genuine difference of opinion."

For instance, Attorney General John Ashcroft, as part of the administration's anti-terrorism efforts, had been pushing Congress to expand the federal government's authority over wiretapping, detaining of non-citizen suspects, and punishing of terrorists.

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But Ashcroft's call for more policing power met with opposition from across the political spectrum - from liberal Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., to conservative Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., to groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Libertarian Party and the conservative Free Congress Foundation.

These factions, who seldom see eye to eye on anything, cam together to complain about provisions they felt would violate civil liberties and personal freedoms.

By the end of this week, most of the opposition turned to tepid support as the House Judiciary Committee worked out a compromise measure, and the Senate negotiated its own compromise with the White House.

"The left is not completely happy with the bill and neither is the right," House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said about the House version. "I think this means we've got it just about right."

The Senate's airport security bill is another example of the return to political "normalcy." Debate on the bill came to a screeching halt this week over one provision: whether baggage and passenger screeners should be federalized. The difference in reaction to this legislation from the anti-terrorism bill is that the divisions are strictly along party lines.

This bill mainly uses suggestions President Bush made about making aviation safer such as allowing air marshals on all flights and requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to develop methods preventing unauthorized cockpit entry.

As for the screeners, Mr. Bush recommended keeping the present system where private companies provide security but added that the government should take over training.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., argues, however, that airport security should be handled by professionals and that the only solution is to federalize the screeners.

Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., blocked Daschle's efforts to bring the bill to the floor Wednesday, threatening the chance of the bill's passage.

"I'm disappointed, obviously, that our Republican colleagues have chosen what has been clearly an obstructionist approach here," Daschle lamented.

Daschle, in turn, has a chance to be the obstructionist with another Bush proposal: his request for an economic stimulus package of up to $75 billion. Mr. Bush's plan aims to cut taxes, increase spending and extend unemployment benefits.

Daschle, however, thinks the president is asking for too much.

"This is deficit spending once again and it's very disconcerting to many of us," Daschle said Wednesday. "But I don't know that there's an alternative. We are in an economic and military and security emergency."

While Mr. Bush receives criticism from Democrats on this issue, the pro-tax cut wing of his party isn't enamored with his original proposal either.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Tex., said, "An aggressive, investor-driven, pro-growth agenda is the best response. Government cannot buy its way out of a recession."

"A meaningful economic stimulus package must focus on creating opportunity, not expanding government spending," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Tex., representing a group of conservative House Republicans.

"There's a fear (among some Republicans), that Bush has become too buddy-buddy" with Democrats, Ornstein said, explaining Armey and DeLays reaction.

Ultimately, these responses exemplify a return to politics as usual during an unusual time.

Lawmakers are considering "a series of actions, knowing their first priority is to deal with the immediate terrorism threat," Ornstein explains.

But as that threat persists, "they're considering it as well as the other things they care about ... making sure the other side doesn't get something they don't agree with."

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