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The rush to a hushed election campaign


WASHINGTON – Congress is back in session following the long August recess. But a bare handful of working days are scheduled before Congress abandons Capitol Hill again, this time for election campaigning of unusually high stakes for the midterm of a presidency.

Republicans are the majority party in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. By capturing 16 seats in the House and six in the Senate, Democrats can return to the majority in both chambers. With majority status comes committee chairmanships and enormous authority over which priorities will be pursued, which bills will get a hearing, which amendments will advance. Allocations for majority staff are larger as well, and more hands on deck also contribute to the difference between playing defense against majority initiatives and originating priority legislation.

Many observers expect lawmakers to extend their stay in Washington into early October, despite the currently scheduled adjournment date of Sept. 29. In any case, the majority GOP has established a modest agenda for September, including work on defense spending, homeland security and other appropriations bills popular with core Republican voters. Congress may even go so far as to install a fence on the nation’s southern border and call it immigration reform. But for any other appropriations bills to be finalized before the November elections, they will have to be perceived as helpful or at least not harmful to Republicans, which means in part – not too popular with Democratic voters. This means that after Oct. 1, the beginning of fiscal year 2007 most government programs will have to be funded by continuing resolutions. If past performances repeat themselves, the full federal budget may not be signed into law until late January of 2007 or later.

Between the early November elections and the commencement of the 110th Congress in the first days of January, Congress may return to Washington for one of its “lame duck sessions.” If so, the nation as a whole, and Indian country in particular, must be on the alert for the unexpected. With voted-out members serving out their terms, returning members eyeing the political landscape as it will shape up once November winners take office in January, and the influence of the presidency reduced heading into Bush’s final two years, the conventional political motivations may not to apply to any votes taken, and the regular order of Congress will certainly not to apply to any issues that may be taken up.

In recent years, Indian country has made out fairly well from the famous “flurry of activity” that ends every session of Congress, as the sponsors of a host of bills that will die without action discover the bargaining power to resurrect their priorities for a “unanimous consent” vote. It’s a process that seems to work for Indian country more often than not, though we’ll probably never know how. But in a lame duck session, the usual processes may not work in quite the same way, so all bets are off.

It’s customary and accurate to think of congressional members as being in a rush to leave Washington for election campaigns that will seal their political fate, and this year is no exception in that respect. But the rush is on for campaigns that will prove remarkably hushed. With all of the indicators turning up trump cards for Democrats, from fund-raising to poll numbers to the president’s unpopularity to the myriad failures of the current 109th Congress and the disillusionment within conservative circles, GOP candidates can’t win on national issues such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the federal budget, the political ethics of the most corrupt Congress in American history or the accomplishments of the most “do-nothing Congress” in decades. But President Bush’s one unequivocal accomplishment – keeping the nation safe from terrorist attack a full five years after the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001 – complements the traditional Republican edge on issues of national defense and security.

So while the president harps away on that theme in every imaginable variation between now and November, Republican strategy calls for candidates to hope for some benefit from that direction while forsaking national perspectives of their own in favor of local issues. By winning votes in distinct states and districts on strictly local issues, Republicans hope to limit their inevitable losses and somehow retain majority control on Capitol Hill. Democrats, by and large, are content to let the Republican collapse run its course.

The wild card in all of this is whether some strange twist of war will hand Republicans a patriotic turnout at the polls, somewhat in the way a policy victory for Democrats on the Vietnam War paved the way to a 20-year GOP reign (the Carter anomaly excepted) over the presidency.

Whatever their outcome, the upcoming elections – perhaps more than any other since the decisive arrival of television in politics all the way back in 1960 – will be left in the hands of local voters.