WASHINGTON -- Legislation to stimulate the economy is stimulating an outbreak of political combat instead, the White House and Republicans on one side, Democrats on the other in a clash over recession-related issues likely to play out next year in mid-term elections.
Following Vice President Dick Cheney's charge of obstructionism, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on Monday accused Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of pursuing a ''formula for gridlock, for partisanship and for inaction'' on stimulus legislation.
For their part, House Democrats got the campaign advertising season off to an early start, aiming radio commercials at three Republicans they hope to defeat next year.
Referring to a House-passed stimulus measure, the ads charge that Reps. John Hostettler of Indiana and Dick Shimkus of Illinois ''voted along narrow partisan lines to pass billions of dollars in tax breaks for huge corporations. A bill that gives the most to the few, and shortchanges Americans who have lost their jobs and could lose their health insurance.'' A similar commercial begins Tuesday against West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.
With the House and Senate eager to adjourn for the year, lawmakers may yet compromise on a bill to help victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and the recession. Unemployment rose to 5.7 percent in November and 1.2 million Americans have lost their jobs since the recession began in March.
The outlines of a compromise are easy to discern: an acceleration of last spring's tax cuts, as favored by Republicans, coupled with direct unemployment and health care benefits for the jobless that Democrats advocate.
For now, though, talks are at a standstill. After a weeklong struggle to decide who should sit at the bargaining table, meetings were abruptly called off over the weekend when GOP Rep. Bill Thomas went home to California, a trip that triggered yet another round of finger-pointing.
Political strategists eager to use gridlock to their advantage may find it an unreliable ally, particularly against the unusual background of rising unemployment and a war against terrorism.
Some Democrats say they have a tempting target: the House-passed bill includes a $24 billion, 10-year tax break for corporations, including billions of dollars for energy and other companies through a lump sum refund of Alternative Minimum Tax payments made as far back as 1986. Most Republicans voted for the bill and against a Democratic alternative, the vote highlighted in the Democrats' radio commercials.
Privately, some Republican strategists have expressed concern about lawmakers having to defend the vote, particularly if unemployment rises.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said in an interview that if talks deadlock, GOP leaders might bring a second stimulus bill to the floor, this one including a $20 billion package of unemployment and health assistance floated last week.
Some Republicans say the political advantage is theirs: that Democrats are newly in charge in the Senate, and will bear the blame if Bush's request goes nowhere. ''This is a test of the Senate ... and a real test of whether they are able to govern,'' said Fleischer, whose party will be running its own ads next year.
Presidential popularity figures in, as well.
A trio of veteran Democratic strategists recently distributed a memo to party leaders arguing that the time was ripe to attack Republicans over the economy.
''Democrats should feel free to attack wrongheaded Republican congressional initiatives, even separating the House Republicans from the president,'' wrote Stanley Greenberg, James Carville and Bob Shrum.
''The economy is emerging as a major issue for next year,'' they added, ''but Democrats do not yet have the advantage.''
With Bush's approval ratings at stratospheric levels, Democrats are attempting to tread carefully.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., declared recently that the current economic contraction was ''George Bush's recession.'' But the radio commercials steer well clear of that -- saying only that ''we're in a recession.''
And the commercial begins with a reference to the war against terrorism, a subject on which it says, ''we're all united.''
If Democrats are hoping to create political distance between Bush's wartime popularity and Republican handling of the economy, Republicans are working to prevent it.
And Daschle, the nation's most powerful Democrat and the Senate majority leader since summer, is their target of choice.
Cheney spoke up on Sunday, saying on NBC's "Meet the Press" that ''Tom Daschle, unfortunately, has decided in this case to be more of an obstructionist.''
Speaker Dennis Hastert suggested Daschle may be trying to block passage by saying he wouldn't bring any bill to the floor unless two-thirds of the Senate Democrats favor it.
''To block it by saying you have to have a two-thirds vote, that puts this whole thing in jeopardy,'' Hastert said.
David Espo is AP's chief congressional correspondent.
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