- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, Texas Democrat, has voted repeatedly against President Bush’s tax cuts — so it was surprising when he voted Thursday for a $146 billion package to extend some of its most popular middle-class provisions.

Republicans chalked it up to another pre-election conversion — something they say they expect as they force Congress to vote on popular but contentious bills during the next few weeks.

From flag-burning to the Pledge of Allegiance and the definition of marriage, House and Senate leaders say they will make Democrats choose between their party principles and their constituents.

“You want to draw distinctions between the parties,” said Stuart Roy, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican. “Republicans get re-elected when we act like Republicans. Democrats get re-elected when they act like Republicans. For us, the best way to draw distinctions is to paint with bold lines and bright colors.”

He said the weeks before an election are a “window of opportunity” to do just that.

The tax vote was one example. It passed 339-65 — with 10 fewer Democrats voting against it than voted against the 10 percent income-tax bracket in May, and 30 fewer “No” votes from Democrats than voted against ending the marriage penalty in April.

Both previous times, Mr. Stenholm voted no, but Republicans say this time he flipped his vote because he’s facing a tough re-election in a district that voted for President Bush by 76 percent in 2000.

“I am very concerned the cost of these tax cuts will be paid by future generations who do not have a stake in today’s political process, but I voted for this legislation because there are many families in West Texas who stand to benefit from these tax cuts in the short term, Mr. Stenholm said.

Still to come in the House is a vote this week on the District’s gun laws and a vote on a constitutional amendment prohibiting homosexual “marriage.”

In the Senate, a main target for Republicans is Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. Republicans are eagerly anticipating his vote on a constitutional amendment banning desecration of the American flag.

Mr. Daschle does not support the amendment, voting against it in 2000, and his opponent, John Thune, has already seized on it as a campaign issue, sharply criticizing the senator and urging him to support it.

Dan Pfeiffer, a spokesman for Mr. Daschle’s campaign, said Mr. Thune is “giving the voters far less credit than they deserve.”

“They can smell political tricks a mile away,” Mr. Pfeiffer said, adding that Mr. Daschle thinks flag-burning is reprehensible, but favors a legislative approach rather than amending the Constitution. He said the Senate can either spend the remaining days this year finishing homeland security legislation, or “we can play political games with an amendment that has no chance of being ratified.”

But Don Stewart, a spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, said with an election looming, Mr. Daschle faces a difficult decision.

“The closer we get to 67 [yea votes], the more difficult it gets for those who have voted against the amendment yet are in races in states where it’s very popular,” said Mr. Stewart, whose boss is sponsor of the amendment. “They have a choice between voting with their state and the major veterans groups in the country or trying to make a political statement for special-interest groups opposed to this bill.”

The House this week will take a high-profile vote on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman, thereby prohibiting same-sex couples from “marrying.”

And House members were forced last week to vote on a bill prohibiting federal courts, including the Supreme Court, from hearing cases challenging the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. That measure passed, 247-173, with the support of 34 Democrats, including Mr. Stenholm and Rep. Brad Carson of Oklahoma, who is locked in a tight race for the U.S. Senate.

“The Republican leadership is more interested in using the scant remaining days on the House floor to make partisan political points instead of progress for the American people,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

She cited the Pledge bill and the marriage amendment as prime examples, and called it “curious” that Mr. DeLay said he didn’t bring up the assault weapons ban extension to the House floor because it didn’t have the votes to pass, but “he is going to bring up the constitutional amendment on gay marriage, and he knows that that is not going to pass the House.”

Mr. Roy, though, said Republicans take a long view of these votes, seeing them as part of building support for their agenda.

“They’re saying it’s about the election. I’m saying the election only provides opportunity for momentum for the agenda — in this case, of protecting the family,” he said.

Republicans such as Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, chairman of the House Judiciary Constitution subcommittee, said the American people should be able to see before the election where their congressman stands on a critical issue such as marriage.

“I think its important that the House actually go on record relative to traditional marriage. Traditional marriage in this country is under attack,” he said.

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat who opposes the marriage amendment because she says it denies rights to a certain group of people, said Republicans are trying to “divide, isolate” and “conquer” by bringing the marriage amendment to the floor. Specifically, she said, they’re “attempting to divide people from leaders of their religious community.”

Many pastors, especially black pastors, strongly support the marriage amendment and the congresswoman said she has had to make her case to pastors in her district who want her to support the amendment.

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