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Security Is Atop GOP’s Agenda

Times Staff Writer

It’s going to be “Security September” on Capitol Hill.

With GOP control of the House and Senate hanging in the balance in the November midterm elections, Republican leaders want to use the monthlong session that begins today when Congress reconvenes to press what has traditionally been their biggest advantage over Democrats: national security.

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner issued a statement last week emphasizing the theme Republicans plan to hammer. In fact, he reminded voters four times in one sentence.

“From homeland security to national security to border security, House Republicans will focus first and foremost on addressing the safety and security needs of the American people throughout the month of September,” Boehner said.

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First on the agenda will be spending bills for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Though both parties will seize the opportunity to debate terrorism and the war in Iraq, these are must-pass measures.

But the rest of the GOP’s security agenda is likely to produce stubborn opposition from Democrats, especially the proposals to give legislative approval to the Bush administration’s domestic spying program and a new plan for using military tribunals to try terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

On the tribunals issue, many Democrats and even some Republicans have suggested President Bush’s approach may need to be modified to give detainees greater opportunities to defend themselves.

But the White House and Republican leaders in Congress believe events last month -- particularly the uncovering of an alleged terrorist plot in Britain and a federal court ruling that the domestic surveillance program is unconstitutional -- improve the likelihood that they can enact the tough laws they want in these areas instead of compromising with critics.

They also calculate that, whatever form final legislation might take, debating the tribunal system and domestic surveillance shows the GOP not only focusing on security but taking steps to support tough approaches to the problem.

“Republicans want to get a vote on the record that shows they’re strong on national security and intent on taking a tough stand on terrorist suspects,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Madden said.

Other items on the agenda, such as immigration and energy costs, are also expected to be painted with the security brush. Gaining better control of the nation’s borders and reducing its dependence on imported oil will be presented as vital elements in the war on terrorism.

House and Senate Republicans remain split over the specifics of immigration policy, however: House Republicans insist on “border security first” and many GOP senators -- as well as most Democrats -- favor a “comprehensive” approach that would combine tighter security with a path for illegal immigrants to achieve legal status.

At least some House GOP members believe swift action should be taken to rescind the most controversial provision in the immigration bill the House passed in December -- making illegal border-crossing a felony. The provision, little noticed when it was approved, sparked nationwide protests this spring and summer.

“There’s a political and policy alignment that is favorable to get it done sooner rather than later,” said a senior Republican aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about internal party discussions.

When it comes to energy legislation, Democrats and Republicans remain divided. Republicans generally favor increasing domestic production of oil and gas, including a proposal to relax the long-standing ban on offshore drilling, whereas Democrats generally favor increased conservation and environmental protections.

Both parties are conscious of voters’ concerns over high gasoline prices. One of the first orders of business this session will be hearings into pipeline problems in Alaska that shut down part of the largest U.S. oil field last month.

At least three committees have scheduled hearings, and Republican lawmakers -- whom Democrats have attacked as too cozy with the oil industry -- are likely to give industry officials a public grilling for not properly maintaining the pipelines.

On national security, what has worked for Republicans usually hasn’t worked as well for Democrats. But both parties say that this year, they think talking about security, terrorism and the war works to their advantage.

For their part, Democrats say they intend to use the spending bills for the Defense and Homeland Security departments to criticize Republicans over the Iraq war and highlight ongoing threats to airports and seaports -- issues they believe play to Democratic strengths.

“The more Democrats talk about it, the more they look like they are trying to politicize it,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), countered: “They say we shouldn’t make this political? Give me a break. We’re going to push back. People know that they are in charge and that they have failed. People are ready for a new direction.”

Quick action by Republicans on the tribunals issue and the domestic spying program will be complicated by the fact that no committee in either chamber has approved any of the proposed legislation -- the usual step before debating a bill on the floor.

Congressional leaders could decide to bypass the committees. Or they could accelerate the committee process. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Bonjean said.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has used the summer recess to write a working draft of legislation to create a new legal process for the detainees. Details of the draft have not been made public, but “we’re going to move forward, one way or another,” said Warner spokesman John Ullyot.

The Supreme Court ruled in June that the military tribunal system was illegal because it had not been approved by Congress.

And an Aug. 17 ruling by a Detroit federal judge that the domestic surveillance program is unconstitutional has added to the pressure on Republican leaders to act.

“We are going to keep this program intact no matter what,” Bonjean said. “If we have to make legislative fixes, we will.”

A bill that would extend a number of popular tax cuts also will be high on the agenda. Lobbying overhaul legislation remains stalled over differences between House and Senate bills. But leaders of both chambers say they plan to take one provision -- a requirement that all spending earmarks be listed publicly -- and adopt it as a rule instead of including it in legislation.

GOP leaders have set Oct. 6 as an adjournment date for this session, but it appears increasingly unlikely that they will be able to complete a number of must-pass pieces of legislation, primarily annual spending bills for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Not one of the annual spending bills has cleared Congress yet (though an emergency spending bill to fund the war and hurricane relief did).

Privately, aides say it is likely that members will leave town at the end of September and pass a continuing resolution to keep the government going after Oct. 1. That would mean Congress would have to return to Washington after the November election for an unpredictable and acrimonious lame-duck session.

In addition to avoiding such a session, Republicans have another reason for wanting to push for their legislative agenda in the next few weeks: to protect themselves against Democratic charges that they have whiled away the legislative year on symbolic fights over gay marriage and flag burning that please their political base, and procrastinated on must-do business like funding the federal government.

In an interview, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said: “This Republican administration and this Republican-dominated Congress will go down in history without any question as the most do-nothing Congress in history.”

Republicans believe they can prove their critics wrong. “Our members know there’s work to be done, and we’re going to work overtime to make sure it happens,” Bonjean said.

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maura.reynolds@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard Simon and Janet Hook contributed to this report.


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