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Archive for Sunday, September 16, 2001

Capitol Hill agenda, political tone fundamentally altered by terrorist attacks

September 16, 2001

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— The terrorist attacks have fundamentally altered the agenda and political tone on Capitol Hill. Put aside, for now, are the fierce partisan battles over campaign finance reform, use of the Social Security surplus and other issues.

"I think we've got to do one thing at a time," said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. "We're not talking about other issues. We're talking about the gigantic challenge that's in front of us."

Republicans and Democrats are now discussing cooperation on the budget and taking care of a few high-profile domestic issues as attention shifts to supporting President Bush in what many lawmakers consider a war effort.

For months, Rep. Christopher Shays has worked to pass legislation that would ban certain largely unregulated political donations. Asked what happens now, Shays, R-Conn., said: "Everything's changed. We can't even comprehend how it all sorts out."

Congress in the coming months is less likely to use issues as political wedges aimed at the 2002 midterm elections, political analysts say. Ahead is more civility, less partisanship and greater focus on the terrorist threat and solutions to the problem.

"There are certain things in our lives that have become unimportant that were so important before," said James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. "It's almost embarrassing to be overly partisan at a time like this."

Disappearing from the agenda was the mainly symbolic Social Security battle that occupied politicians all summer. Lawmakers quickly realized they would need to tap Social Security surpluses to pay for the attacks' aftermath and military efforts to come _ as well as fund the 13 regular government spending bills for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

That removes the biggest obstacle to agreeing on those spending bills. The main questions now are how much more money should be added for defense, intelligence and other programs, and whether Congress should act more quickly than expected and adjourn for the year.

The capital's obsession with Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., and the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy also evaporated with the terrorist attacks.

Committees are scheduling hearings on topics related to the attacks _ airport security and intelligence capabilities, for example. A House bill under consideration would aid the airline industry.

To be sure, many important other domestic issues are unresolved.

Bush is likely to continue pushing for his education package. House Republicans are assembling an economic stimulus plan based around cuts in capital gains taxes and business tax relief.

Some lawmakers hope to develop a Medicare prescription drug benefit, change the immigration program, enact trade legislation and pass a farm subsidy bill. A patient's bill of rights is awaiting House-Senate compromise, as is a measure overhauling bankruptcy laws.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he plans to move legislation soon to extend a moratorium on Internet taxes that expires Oct. 21. Many in Congress want to carry on business as usual to the degree possible, lest the terrorists be viewed as winning.

"I think we do have the stomach for it," Sensenbrenner said. "It's our job."

The political tone is also much different in the closely divided Senate. Partisan bitterness ran high after the Senate shifted to Democratic control when GOP Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont became an independent.

Democratic and Republican leaders, and their aides, are now talking daily as the focus shifts to passing legislation rather than seeking partisan advantage. Swift Senate passage Friday of a $40 billion spending bill and a measure authorizing presidential use of force were examples.

"We can quibble for days or weeks. We can argue the legalisms. We can parse over every word," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. Still, Lott said, "The American people expect us to act. They expect us to act as a team."

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