- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2001

Politics, the stuff of democracy, has returned to Capitol Hill in all its glory, ending much of the bipartisan unity that characterized Washington after the catastrophic Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America.

To be sure, a climate of comity and cooperation still exists between the parties and the White House on the remaining homeland security measures needed to defend the country. But the political truce has been shattered on the legislative front, where Democratic leaders fear that President Bush, boosted by historically high approval ratings, is poised to defeat them on trade, oil and tax cuts.

With the United States plunged into a bloody terrorist war like no other in our history, the president and his supporters have added fast-track trade negotiating authority, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and a tax-cutting economic stimulus plan to the list of bills needed to strengthen national security.

These moves not only have Democratic leaders crying foul, but have forced them to move to a political war-footing of their own to block Mr. Bush's stepped-up legislative offensive.

The latest shot fired by the Democrats came late last week from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, who ordered the Democratic chairman of the Energy Committee to halt work on the administration's energy independence bill. Mr. Daschle seized control of the bill just when it looked as though Mr. Bush was on the verge of victory in committee.

Two Democratic committee members, Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, said they were ready to support Mr. Bush's proposal to allow drilling in the ANWR. That was too much for Mr. Daschle, who, in a rare move, took charge of the bill, promising "potential action" later in the year. His real intention is to kill Mr. Bush's plan by shutting down the legislative process.

Pointing to America's dangerous dependence on foreign oil from the Middle East, Republicans charged that Mr. Daschle was playing politics with a bill Mr. Bush has said is inextricably tied to American's energy security.

"Sen. Daschle has subverted the will of the Energy Committee, the will of the Senate, and the will of the American people all in order to deny the president a political win," said Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski, the Energy Committee's ranking Republican.

Mr. Daschle, of course, is playing to his party's liberal environmental bloc; but that success will come at a huge price because the Teamsters and other unions support Mr. Bush's oil drilling plan, which would mean tens of thousands of high-paying jobs for their members. A Teamsters official called Mr. Daschle's move a "head-in-the-sand mentality."

In the meantime, House Republicans were plowing forward with a bill to give Mr. Bush fast-track negotiating authority to open up new markets for American exports. But House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt and New York Rep. Charles Rangel, who accused Mr. Bush of using the war to score legislative victories, warned the administration last week that if they insist on bringing the bill up for a vote, it would shatter the spirit of congressional unity in wartime.

The administration stepped up its call for fast-track authority in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy, arguing that expanding trade was inextricably tied to national economic security, especially in time of war. This is no time to back down in the face of Democratic political threats, White House lobbyists told me. "It's full speed ahead," said one Bush adviser.

A compromise trade bill worked out by Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas with several Democrats would have given them provisions they wanted on environmental and labor issues It was headed for the House floor, but business lobbyists say the bill is probably short 10 votes or so, and that the president will have to lobby hard to get them.

Then there is the president's tax-cut stimulus bill. The administration hopes to pass it before the end of the month in order to give the economy a quick jolt to get it growing again.

Democrats want the stimulus bill split 50-50 between public works spending and tax cuts for businesses and individuals. Mr. Bush and Republican leaders want no additional spending, just tax cuts to pump more money into the economy's bloodstream.

"We've already passed nearly $60 billion in spending stimulus bills for relief and recovery operations," said a House Republican leadership official. "What this economy needs are incentives to stimulate economic growth and consumer confidence, and more spending won't get you that."

As with the oil and trade bills, the administration and its allies in Congress see a tax-cut stimulus as a strategic national security issue. America is engaged in a long, costly, global struggle against the worst forces of evil since the Cold War. It's a struggle that will require all the resources of a strong, growing economy.

Democratic leaders may not like the present debate framed in this way because it helps Mr. Bush pass his agenda. But the only question now is: Will they and their party's members vote to strengthen our country in a time of war, or will they vote to play politics?

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