- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Compared to presidential contests, blood pulses a little more slowly through veins of the body politic in off-year elections. With the White House not in play, turnout rates decline, the national media pays a little less attention and local issues often trump a Washington agenda.

But congressional elections can reshape the national political landscape, as the Republican takeover of Congress proved in 1994. The 2006 election could do the same, with some Democrats now thinking they can retake the House, Senate or both this fall. This electoral threat, while creating political hypertension for some, is also motivating others to take a few deep breaths and generate some new legislative ideas.

Congressional Republicans want to replenish their policy inventory and develop some branding of their own. “The Suburban Agenda,” unveiled yesterday by Republican House leaders, is the brainchild of Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois and some of his colleagues. It not only restocks the policy shelves with a host of new ideas aimed at a constituency critical to maintaining the Republican majority, but it also highlights the differences between Democrats and Republicans in policy-making style and substance.

In contrast to the last three elections, congressional Republicans feel less attachment to a broad new White House agenda — more a fact of political life than disloyalty to the president. Many of the major initiatives proposed by President Bush since 2000, including tax cuts, educationreform, Medicare prescription drugs, and Social Security and tax overhauls, have either been accomplished or are off the agenda for the year.

The Suburban Caucus, a relatively new, informal group of more than 50 Republican House members, spans broad ideological perspectives and regions.Caucus membersinclude representatives from New York to California, Minnesota to Florida. It’s comprised of moderates, such as Nancy Johnson of Connecticut and Mike Castle of Delaware, and more conservative House members like Pete Sessions of Texas and Tom Feeney of Florida. They are bound together by the configuration of their constituencies: suburban voters — a subgroup growing in size and political power.

If demography is destiny, the Suburban Caucus recognizes the significance of the shifting political landscape. As representatives of the group told me, the American electorate has changed from “rural Republicans and urban Democrats to suburban swing voters.” Right now, Republicans have a 138-86 edge in suburban seats, making these districts “the foundation of their House majority,” according to Congressional Quarterly.

Mr. Kirk commissioned a poll of 1,000 likely suburban voters and found a cluster of ideas related to health, education, the environment and taxes that garnered 80 percent or more support. Legislation in these areas serves as the core of this new agenda. Some of their recommendations include requiring health-care portability; school safety legislation calling for background checks on teachers and authorizing locker checks to search for weapons or illegal drugs in schools; establishing 401(kids) tax-deferred accounts so parents can save money for their children; and capping legal fees at Superfund sites to 10 percent.

These are unique and perilous times for congressional Republicans. But a confluence of events brings a wellspring of new ideas. Not since the 1920s and President Coolidge has a Republican legislative majority served with a second-term president (and even this is not a perfect comparison because while Coolidge won a second term in 1924, he was vice president during most of his first term and only assumed the presidency after the death of Warren Harding in 1923). The combination of a second-term president and a Republican House leadership team open to ideas from the rank-in-file has spawned new agendas, creating interesting contrasts with the opposition.

House Democrats are still agenda anemic, struggling to craft an agenda from the top down. But their leaders are so dominated by liberal special interests — the usual suspects like trial lawyers, unions and environmental extremists — finding a popular consensus will likely prove impossible. So far their efforts have produced little more than lame slogans. The Suburban Agenda, on the other hand, is very much a plan developed from the bottom up, and based on the polls, would garner broad public support. It also creates some sharp contrasts with the Democrats’ liberal interest-group base.

For Republicans with a case of political hypertension, the Suburban Agenda may be as politically popular as a physician’s house call, and just what the doctor ordered.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide