- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2003

Congress is settling in after the Memorial Day break. The battle to pass President Bush’s tax package behind them, members face another important session, with prescription-drug legislation on the table. The closer it gets to next year’s national elections, the less likely it becomes that substantive new laws can be passed — and the window is closing rapidly. As a practical matter, Republicans have six to nine months to prove their worth as a governing party. At this point, after congressional leaders have taken the temperature of members to gauge their mood, the general feeling among Republicans on Capitol Hill is one of exuberance. It’s our view that it is still too early to uncork the champagne.

In the upper chamber, where a handful of stubborn senators held up the tax package, there now is a sense of relief that the hardest work is behind them. An aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told us yesterday, “Republicans had a good recess week. They got to go back home to their districts with tax relief in hand, success on the global AIDS bill and other issues they’ve been championing. They had the chance to show their constituents that this Congress is getting things done.” Two senior staffers told us that passing any tax cut has to be considered a success given the divided makeup of the Senate and the fact that President Bush already cut taxes last year. Looking ahead, even some senators not entirely comfortable with Mr. Frist’s leadership think the stars are aligned to finally get a prescription-drug bill passed, and that having a doctor at the helm increases the chances.

House leaders are a bit more cautious — but not much. Stuart Roy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, told us, “We have a lot of heavy lifting ahead, but our major agenda items are completed or on the way. Our members are optimistic about heading into next year with a good record.” Wednesday’s passage of the partial-birth abortion ban is seen as shoring up a conservative base already happy with tax cuts and a successful war. Realistically, though, prescription-drug benefits for seniors, an issue with broad general appeal, will be tougher to get done. Last year, the bill passed by only one vote, and the legislation this time around is expected to include more controversial reforms.

The Republican plan is to pass prescription-drug benefits for seniors in both houses by the July 4 recess. Of course there are a few bumps on this political road map. Primarily, there is the little problem that it is not a one-party government — Democrats could well play the obstructionist card. However, that tactic did hurt them in last year’s congressional elections, and holding up popular Medicare bills could be seen as too risky before another election. Although Democrats are in some strategic disarray, the possibility for Republican disunity cannot be discounted. There is also the rumor that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor may announce her retirement soon; a nasty battle to confirm her replacement could cause a lengthy setback to legislative plans.

The positive Republican mood of the moment is part spin, but not entirely. They do have some momentum on big issues. In the months ahead, the president’s leadership will be tested and his agenda challenged. If the GOP can deliver on prescription drugs, the outlook for 2004 will be rosy. But that’s hardly a done deal yet. And the state of the economy, now out of the hands of politicians and in the throws of market forces, remains as always a deciding factor in election prospects.

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