Congress Ramps Up for Fall Election Campaigns

Polls show that less than one-third of Americans feel good about the country's direction and even fewer feel good about the direction of Congress. With the elections coming up in November, Congress has only a few weeks to change that feeling, yet neither the House nor the Senate is likely to do much in those weeks that's likely to help the situation.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up on the program, I'll be talking with a spokesman for NATO forces who is on the ground in Afghanistan. There's grim news from there. More NATO soldiers dead; one killed by friendly fire.

First though, it's Labor Day. And this week congressional leaders are on the move leaving their districts and heading back to Capitol Hill. What will they bring with them? What messages from home?

Many unhappy ones, apparently. Polls show less than a third of Americans feel good about the country's direction. Even fewer feel good about the direction of Congress.

With the elections coming in two months, Congress has only a few weeks to change that feeling, or try to. But neither the House nor the Senate is likely to get a lot done in that direction.

Joining us is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron, the House and Senate return tomorrow, a lot of issues on the table, the future direction of the company in the balance. What are they going to do?

RON ELVING reporting:

Well, Alex, the first thing they're going to do in the Senate is they're going to take up the Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping program, very controversial since it was revealed last year. And they're going to debate a bill that would put the Senate's seal of approval on that controversial program with some changes. And that'll be an occasion for a lot of debate about civil liberties, the war on terror, and the national security issue in general.

Now over on the House side, in contrast they're starting out with a couple of bills on trash imports and the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

CHADWICK: Trash imports and the slaughter of horses for human - I'm not sure those issues are - where would those fit on the list of things that Americans are concerned about?

ELVING: Well, for most Americans they probably would not make the list. But the country is mostly concerned, of course, about Iraq, national security in general, immigration, economic security, and gas prices.

But Congress is simply not set up to deal with those issues in a meaningful way at this moment. This Congress, when it thinks of the rest of the year, they are thinking about four weeks or so…

CHADWICK: Yeah.

ELVING: …because after that they want to be out of here in October - and they will be out of here by mid-October so that incumbents can campaign the last few weeks before the vote on November 7.

CHADWICK: Well…

ELVING: You know, beyond that Congress is just - they just get hamstrung. The bigger the question the more they're hamstrung. In some cases it's a matter of loyalty to the White House…

CHADWICK: Yeah.

ELVING: …and in other cases it's divisions within the Republican Party.

CHADWICK: Well, how about Iraq though? What could Congress do? Republican leaders I think probably don't want to have a big focus on Iraq when the war is increasingly unpopular and the president has really bet everything on things going better there pretty soon.

But the news over the weekend is not very good. The good news just doesn't show up in that story.

ELVING: Not enough, although there was a big capture of an al-Qaida figure in Iraq and that to the administration will certainly play up. And Congress could hold hearings. They could have floor debates. They could pass resolutions on this.

And they also have spending bills pending for the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. So there are lots of things, lots of opportunities for them to weigh in on the issue.

But the Republican leadership is not going to undercut the president on this. And the big committee chairmen are not going to undercut the White House on this.

And some individual Republican candidates, as we know, are going to be out there in Connecticut and Minnesota and various places. And they'll be saying we've changed our minds. This war is not working out very well. Maybe we ought to get out of there.

But by and large, the Republicans will cast themselves as the party of constancy and the Democrats as the party of cut and run. That's the strategy from here on out.

CHADWICK: You might not like things with us in charge, but with the other guys it'd be even worse. Let me ask immigration, Ron. Six months ago this was going to be the issue in this election, or certainly one of the big issues. But no one's really talking much about it right now.

ELVING: The Republicans will talk about how much they don't like illegal immigration. But they won't be able to run on their own accomplishments on the issue between now and November because there will be none.

The House is still holding hearings on how much they don't like the Senate bill. And there's no consensus for a compromise let alone on a specific compromise.

CHADWICK: Just briefly, odds on the democratic takeover of the House or Senate in November.

ELVING: The Democrats would probably take over if the election were held tomorrow, at least in the House. But because it's two months away and anything can happen, I'd say the odds are 50/50 in the House.

And in the Senate, Democrats will narrow the gap but their chances of takeover are no better than one in five.

CHADWICK: Happy Labor Day, Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor. Thank you again.

ELVING: Thank you, Alex.

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