Capitol Hill races focus on GOP's record

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- When Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri rolled out his first television campaign ad, the embattled first-term Republican focused on a simple message: "It's not what you promise that matters. It's what you do."

It's a point that neatly defines the rhetorical battle that has broken out between the two main political parties now that Congress has recessed until September.


As lawmakers embark on a frenzied month of campaigning ahead of November midterm elections, the record of what the GOP-controlled Congress has done - and not done - is shaping up as a central issue in the fight for control of Capitol Hill.

In the face of failures to clear major legislation on several fronts - including immigration, military tribunals and ethics reform - House and Senate Republicans are tirelessly talking up other achievements, such as tax breaks and support for domestic security.


Democrats, smelling victory this fall, are sharpening their attacks on a majority they equate with the infamous Republican "do-nothing Congress" that President Truman successfully used as a foil in his 1948 campaign.

With voters in a sour mood, the minority party is increasingly banking that disappointment with what Congress has accomplished will be its ticket back to power. Democrats need to pick up six seats in the Senate and 15 in the House to claim the majority in each chamber.

In Missouri, Talent's Democratic opponent, Claire McCaskill, is hammering the incumbent for voting against increased federal funding for embryonic stem cell research - a popular measure that foundered when Congress failed to override President Bush's veto of it. According to some polls, McCaskill has the lead in the closely watched race.

"The Democrats have the congressional Republicans on the run," said Don Kettl, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist. "The Democrats can't win with a 'do-nothing Congress' charge alone. But it adds to the drumbeat of their campaign that Republicans can't govern. And so far it's paying off."

But whether it will provide the payoff Democrats are hoping for on Election Day remains in doubt.

"It's amazing," said Joe Garecht, a Pennsylvania political consultant who has worked for Republican candidates. "This year presents [Democrats] their best chance in over a decade for re-capturing the House of Representatives, yet they can't pull together and develop a simple, coherent and courageous message."

Still, the notion that the Republican Congress is failing is underscored this year by a dearth of breakthroughs on some of the biggest issues of the day, longtime observers say.

Lawmakers are at loggerheads over how to overhaul the nation's immigration policies, with Republicans disagreeing among themselves about the proper approach to dealing with millions of illegal immigrants in this country.


Congress has not developed a system for prosecuting terrorism suspects, despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision rejecting the Bush administration's current use of military tribunals.

No major reforms to the Social Security system, identified last year by the president as a pending crisis, have been enacted.

And there has been no significant reform of ethics guidelines for Congress, despite pledges from Republican lawmakers in the aftermath of the scandal centering on lobbyist Jack Abramoff that exposed a web of unseemly influence-peddling on Capitol Hill.

It isn't an impressive record, said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey who has studied Congress for 30 years.

As Republican senators left town last week, they scoffed at the "do-nothing" label trumpeted by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other leading Democrats.

"I'm enormously proud of the progress we've made on behalf of the people we represent," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said on the Senate floor Friday morning as the chamber prepared to adjourn.


As the recess neared, Frist repeatedly took time out from legislative business to talk up what his party has done.

He pointed to its efforts to bolster domestic security with an extension of the USA Patriot Act that will allow the government to keep using expanded powers to combat terrorism.

He celebrated the extension of 2003 tax cuts on dividends and capital gains, provisions he said are helping stimulate the economy.

By most indications, Republicans have their work cut out for them in making their case for their congressional record.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found record levels of public disillusionment with Congress, with 41 percent saying lawmakers had accomplished less than usual. Six years ago, 16 percent gave that answer.

Numerous surveys also have shown that many voters not only support a change in which party controls Congress, but want to replace their own representatives, as well.


Noam N. Levey and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times.