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Post-Schiavo Questions Await Congress's GOP Leaders

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A26191-2005Apr4.html?referrer=email Post-Schiavo Questions Await Congress s GOP Leaders Priorities Debated as
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 5, 2005
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      http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A26191-2005Apr4.html?referrer=email

      Post-Schiavo Questions Await Congress's GOP Leaders
      Priorities Debated as Recess Ends

      By Charles Babington
      Washington Post Staff Writer
      Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page A04

      Republican congressional leaders return to Washington
      today to confront a political landscape that is
      considerably more problematic than the one they left
      two weeks ago, when the House and Senate adjourned for
      Easter recess.

      The searingly emotional Terri Schiavo case divided
      Republican-leaning voters and drew Congress into an
      extraordinary Palm Sunday intervention, which is now
      fueling claims that party leaders are out of step with
      mainstream America.

      House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), already
      battling ethics charges, added to his combative
      reputation by bitterly attacking state and federal
      judges who rejected pleas to keep the brain-damaged
      woman alive. Meanwhile, his allies were rattled by
      criticisms from several conservative publications,
      including a Wall Street Journal editorial that accused
      DeLay of abuses that "sooner or later will sweep him
      out."

      President Bush's top priority, restructuring Social
      Security, made little if any progress despite his
      all-out campaigning during the recess, key lawmakers
      said. And the Senate seems closer than ever to a major
      collision over judicial nominations, a topic made even
      more emotional by the role of federal judges in the
      Schiavo case.

      Aides to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.)
      said yesterday that he soon will offer Democrats a
      compromise on the long-standing impasse, even though a
      growing number of conservative activists are pressing
      him to force a showdown now. Democrats predict the
      offer will be too flimsy to entice them to stop
      filibustering several appellate court nominees, but
      the mere fact that Frist is talking of negotiations,
      they say, convinces them he lacks the 51 votes he
      needs to change the filibuster rules in a chamber with
      55 GOP members.

      The mixture of issues and events, some top Republicans
      say, puts the party at a precarious juncture, where it
      needs to reassure voters that its leaders are ethical
      and focused on hearth-and-home issues such as jobs,
      affordable gasoline and secure retirements.

      Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) says Democrats
      suffered major setbacks in the 1990s when an
      ethics-challenged leader -- House Speaker Jim Wright
      (D-Tex.), who resigned in 1989 -- became a larger
      symbol of his party than its platform issues. "That's
      a cocktail for disaster," Graham said. If a political
      leader's personal problems are coupled with "some
      policy decisions that are disconnected to the public,
      then you've got an opening" for trouble, he said. "If
      we don't watch it, it could happen to us."

      Graham is wary of some Republicans' calls for further
      Schiavo-inspired legislation, such as a federal
      definition of "persistent vegetative state." The
      states, he said, "are capable of defining end-of-life
      terms."

      Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said several
      national surveys found that 60 to 80 percent of
      Americans opposed Congress's March 20 intervention in
      the Schiavo case. Federal courts promptly rejected the
      lawmakers' directive to review a series of Florida
      court decisions allowing Schiavo's feeding tube to be
      removed. One appellate judge chastised Congress and
      Bush for their actions.

      Fabrizio said voters "are probably wondering why we
      can't get deficit reduction or tax reform or Social
      Security reform as quickly as we got the Schiavo bill"
      from the Republican-controlled Congress. Because
      conservative Christian activists were seen as pushing
      the legislation, he said, "that's a symbol of what
      your [party's] priorities are, and you'd better show
      them another symbol."

      Also during the recess, former GOP senator John C.
      Danforth of Missouri, an ordained Episcopal minister,
      wrote a New York Times op-ed article criticizing his
      party's emphasis on opposing stem cell research,
      same-sex marriage and Schiavo's husband. "Republicans
      have transformed our party into the political arm of
      conservative Christians," he wrote.

      DeLay hinted last week that Congress might try to
      impeach some of the judges involved in the Schiavo
      case, but other prominent Republicans are urging calm.
      "I think there will be some legislation out there
      [dealing with end-of-life issues], but I don't think
      there will be a mainstream effort to put this in the
      top 10 priorities," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a
      member of the House GOP leadership. "We're hearing a
      lot about the prices of gasoline," he said, and "the
      timing is right to pass the energy bill."

      Kingston dismissed suggestions that DeLay's problems
      could hurt the party. He said he has held more than a
      dozen town hall meetings in his district recently and
      "I have had not one single question, even from
      political followers, about him."

      With the Schiavo case dominating national news during
      the two-week break, Bush made modest progress in his
      60-day campaign to build support for adding personal
      accounts to Social Security, key players said. "I
      believe it's about where we left off two weeks ago,"
      Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said at the end of
      the recess. He is the chairman of the Finance
      Committee, which is responsible for Social Security
      legislation.

      But Grassley said he is optimistic that support for
      the president's efforts will grow as more Americans
      realize that Social Security faces long-term solvency
      problems.

      Grassley told Republican committee staff members
      yesterday that he will press forward with Social
      Security legislation this year. At a meeting attended
      by staff members and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah),
      Grassley said he will call a Social Security hearing
      before the end of the month and plans to put a bill
      before the committee in July, according to GOP aides
      who attended the meeting. Only last week, Grassley
      told reporters he did not believe Social Security
      legislation could be passed this year.

      But underscoring the difficult road ahead, Grassley
      said the president's Social Security plan would swell
      the national debt tremendously if the move is not
      accompanied by significant cuts to promised benefits.

      Under Bush's proposal for individual accounts, the
      national debt would more than triple, from about 40
      percent of the economy, or gross domestic product, to
      150 percent of GDP by 2072. "That does not sound like
      something the Democrats would sign on to," the aide
      said Hatch remarked.

      Like Bush, Grassley is focusing mainly on the proposal
      to allow private accounts, which would divert a
      portion of workers' payroll taxes into stock and bond
      portfolios that would follow them into retirement.

      To some, the darkest cloud above Congress is the
      Senate's looming clash over judicial nominees.
      Democrats have used the filibuster -- which can be
      stopped only by 60 votes in the 100-member chamber --
      to thwart several of Bush's most conservative
      appellate court appointees. Republican leaders have
      threatened to change Senate rules to bar such
      filibusters, which would require 51 votes. Democrats
      say they would respond by bringing the Senate to a
      standstill, hence the scenario's moniker, "the nuclear
      option."

      Yesterday, dozens of conservative groups released a
      letter urging Frist to end the filibusters "at the
      earliest possible moment." Some of the signers
      predicted Frist has the votes he needs, but others
      said the vote count is uncertain and may remain so for
      weeks.

      If anything, the Schiavo case has heightened tensions
      over the judicial stalemate. Tony Perkins, president
      of the Family Research Council, said the woman's death
      "should awaken Americans to the problems of the
      courts." More conservative judges are needed, he said,
      even though others noted that several of the judges
      involved in the Schiavo case are Republican
      appointees.

      Even some Republicans who strongly oppose the
      Democrats' filibusters are worried that the Schiavo
      case suggests a GOP drift away from nuts-and-bolts
      legislation and toward the more polarizing agenda of
      religious conservatives. "I didn't come here to make a
      statement," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former
      majority leader. "I came here to get results."

      Intervening in Schiavo's case, he said, "was the
      morally right thing to do," but "it really bothered me
      that the federal government would inject itself into a
      family medical case."

      Staff writers Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
      contributed to this report.
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