Monday, July 3, 2006

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are staking out issues this election year that they think resonate with Americans and portray the other party as out of touch.

While Democrats have seized upon the issues of a minimum wage increase and the Medicare prescription drug program, Republicans are pushing a “values” agenda that includes banning flag burning and protecting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Democrats in both chambers seem to be finding at least some traction in their push to raise the minimum wage.

House Democrats managed to attach a minimum wage increase measure to an annual spending bill at the committee level, and many Republicans admit the measure is likely to pass if it comes to a floor vote. Some Republicans are urging leaders to go forward with a counterproposal.

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, has called the Democrats’ effort a “cynical ploy” that they use each election year, but he said, “We may have to deal with it.”

In the Senate, a minimum wage increase amendment failed, but Democrats on Friday vowed to block the congressional pay increase this year until Republicans agree to raise the minimum wage.

“We’ve had a month seeing what their priorities are,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, criticizing the recent Republican-led push for measures against same-sex “marriage,” flag burning and the estate tax. He said raising the minimum wage is more important to people. “The only group … that doesn’t support a minimum wage increase is congressional Republicans,” the Nevada Democrat said.

Mike Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, said linking the congressional pay raise to a minimum wage increase is a smart move, but he noted that Democrats bring up the minimum wage issue every election year and that it “usually doesn’t work” for them, other than to “excite their base.”

Rep. Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican, said a minimum wage increase will lead to small businesses eliminating some entry-level positions.

“It’s a job killer,” he said. “If you frame it in that way, we can defend our position.”

Democrats also tried last week to get political traction on the Medicare prescription-drug program with a proposal to correct what they said were flaws in the Republican-spearheaded plan.

“Democrats stand united to provide common-sense solutions to the flawed Bush prescription-drug bill,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Democrats say that the program is confusing, complex and inadequate and that Medicare should be allowed to negotiate directly with drug companies for lower prices.

But Republicans say it’s simply not the political issue Democrats expected it to be, because most seniors who signed up for the program are pleased with it.

“This is not the disaster Democrats hoped it would be,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican, noting that 38 million of Medicare’s 40 million enrollees now have drug coverage, seniors are saving money, and program costs are lower than expected. House Republican leaders told party members to spread this success message over the July Fourth break.

Meanwhile, Republicans have been focusing largely on their own values agenda.

The Senate has voted on a constitutional amendment on marriage, and the House will follow suit later this summer. Last week, the Senate came one vote shy of passing an amendment to ban flag burning. And House Republican leaders last week announced a slate of values bills they say they’ll act on this year, including proposals to extend gambling laws to the Internet, ban human cloning, expand tax relief and require doctors performing late-term abortions to tell women about medical evidence that the unborn can feel pain.

“The American people want us to act on the issues they care about. This is their agenda,” Mr. Boehner said.

Mr. Franc said the agenda will “remind the base that these issues are still important” to Republicans and provide “an opportunity for certain campaigns, certain candidates” to criticize opponents.

The Republicans got off to a rocky start last week, however, when one of the bills — to ban federal courts from ruling on cases involving the Pledge — failed to pass the House Judiciary Committee. Seven Republican panel members were absent during the vote, and one Republican voted with the Democrats, blocking the bill on a tie. House leaders still have the option of bringing the bill straight to the floor, some Republicans noted.

Mr. Pitts, who leads the House’s Values Action Team, was upset about the Pledge bill vote, but he predicted that many of the values bills would pass. He said that even if some fail, Republicans will be victorious “as long as people know we’re trying to do the right thing.”

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