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Terrorism issues fueling campaigns, Capitol Hill debate
With one eye on the mounting terrorist threat and the other on their political futures, politicians from Springfield to Washington have begun to stake out turf as anti-terrorism candidates while taking care not to be painted by opponents as insufficiently zealous on the issue.
The latest example came Tuesday when Illinois Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan, who is running for the GOP nomination for governor, unveiled the state's first ever anti-terrorism legislative package even though he acknowledged that the "primary responsibility" in the fight against terrorism is "obviously federal."
Meanwhile, in Washington, House Democrats stepped up their drive to paint conservative Republicans as irresponsible ideologues for stalling action on Senate-passed airport security legislation because it would add 28,000 airport baggage and passenger screeners to the federal payroll.
"Unbending to consensus, uninterested in compromise, they refuse to think anew and act anew in light of attacks," claimed House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) at a news conference at Reagan National Airport in Washington.
After a period of campaign inactivity and a show of political unity following the terrorist attacks, Sept. 11 has now become a standard part of stump-speech lexicon for politicians looking to leverage voter fears of terrorism to their advantage in next year's elections.
Republicans and Democrats are now anxious to show they are on top of the terrorism issue, partly for fear they would become politically vulnerable in case another attack occurs.
In the race for Illinois governor, Ryan debuted his proposed anti-terrorism legislation. Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood, another Republican contender, has pushed expansion of O'Hare International Airport in a TV ad as a post-attack economic stimulus. U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich of Chicago, a Democratic candidate, has proposed federal legislation for a national one-week "holiday" free of state sales taxes.
"Anytime a major issue comes along, political leaders are anxious to be on top of it and ahead of it if they can," said Charles N. Wheeler III, director of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "Whether they do any good or how effective their proposals are remains to be seen."
On Capitol Hill, Democrats worried about appearing soft on terrorism have downplayed concerns about civil liberties restrictions in security legislation. "There's an environment here that tends to make people want to go along for fear that they will appear insufficiently concerned about the current crisis," said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.)
Feingold, who cast the lone vote against the counter-terrorism package, said the overwhelming support for the legislation was a matter of image over substance.
The House version of the measure was padded by Republicans with an expansion of police powers that Democrats on the Judiciary Committee said went too far. But Democratic opposition melted away Friday amid reports that NBC News in New York had received a letter tainted with anthrax, and the bill passed by a wide margin later that day.
"The opposition just collapsed," said Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican from Wilmette.
On national scene
Nationally, Democrats this week mounted a coordinated attack on Republican conservatives for holding up legislation to strengthen security at the nation's airports and aboard its airplanes. House Republican Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other conservatives oppose the federalization of airport screeners as an unwarranted expansion of the federal government.
Locally, Ryan denied seeking any political advantage in pushing Illinois legislation to make terrorism a crime punishable by 20 years to death in some cases. "This fits the category of doing my job as attorney general--that's where you categorize this," Ryan said.
Like a similar proposal being pushed on the federal level by the Bush administration, Ryan's legislation would give police and prosecutors expanded wiretap authority. It also would allow the state attorney general to freeze assets of suspected terrorists, create criminal and civil liability for financing terrorism, expedite the issuance of search warrants and classify making a terrorist threat punishable by up to 40 years in prison while making a false terrorist threat would carry a penalty of up to 15 years.
Aides to Wood, who has been placed in charge of coordinating Illinois relief efforts to charities, questioned whether Ryan's anti-terrorism proposal would duplicate the work of federal law-enforcement officials and perhaps hinder it.