Both parties in Congress play it safe weeks before elections

Approaching election will dtermine control of Senate, makeup of the House

By David Espo
AP Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) - Seven weeks before the elections, Republicans and Democrats are both playing it safe, willing to make short-term sacrifices of long-held positions in hopes of maximizing their chances for victory at the polls.

That means that House Republicans who recently voted to sue President Barack Obama for what they say is his failure to obey the Constitution seem likely to hand him new war powers to combat militants seeking an Islamic state.

At the same time, legislation seems on track to extend federal funding past the end of the budget year, this time without the drama of a partial federal shutdown that sent Republican poll numbers tumbling in the fall of 2013.

On the other side of the political divide, Obama recently delayed an order to increase the number of immigrants allowed to stay in the country even though they are here illegally. The retreat came after Senate Democrats expressed concern that immediate action could inflame voters who oppose easing current rules, and ensure the defeat of their candidates in key Senate races.

These moves have dissenters in the approach of an election that will determine control of the Senate and the makeup of the House that convene in January.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois said the White House was "walking away from our values and our principles" when the president changed his mind and decided to wait until after the election to issue his order on immigration.

Heritage Action and Club for Growth, which often attack the congressional Republican leadership as insufficiently conservative, bluntly challenged newly installed House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. "Stay true to your comments from June and affirmatively fight to end the Export-Import Bank," they wrote. The agency will be extended through June 30 in the spending bill, even though McCarthy and others promised to kill it off.

Despite the strategic stand-downs, battles over immigration, Obama's foreign policy and health care will eventually happen, as rhetoric from both sides makes clear.

Republicans opposed to most of Obama's agenda have adopted a yes-but approach to his request for stepped up U.S. involvement against Islamic State militants who have overrun parts of Iraq and Syria.

House Speaker John Boehner, who has criticized the administration as slow to respond to the threat, said he had concerns and questions after Obama's speech on Wednesday night. Yet, he said, "We ought to give the president what he's asking for."

Other Republicans agree the militants must be confronted. But it plainly pains them to follow Obama's lead.

Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana said some Republicans think "this is not the president we choose, but it's the only president that we have and that we just have to go along with the one that we have and hope that we can hold him accountable for doing the right thing."

Said Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, "We do not want to go home without voting on some measure that goes toward destroying and defeating ISIS wherever it exists." Recent polls suggest the public supports action against the Islamic State group, sometimes called ISIS or ISIL, that recently beheaded two American journalists.

Across the Capitol, where the GOP has a good chance of winning a Senate majority at the polls, many Republicans likely will support Obama's call for new authority, but grudgingly. "I'm glad the president has brought a new focus to the effort," said GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

That was after McConnell called for a top-to-bottom review of U.S. defense policy in terms unflattering to the current commander in chief. He cited "the need to modernize our military to retain dominance of the air and sea in the Asia-Pacific theater, to revitalize NATO in the face of Russian aggression," a need for more nuclear capability and more.

Fears of triggering a government shutdown also dictate Republican strategy.

The House GOP produced a spending bill with routine funding for the president's health care program, a reversal of the tea party-led struggle a year ago to kill off the program. A partial government shutdown resulted, and Republican poll numbers tumbled.

Obama's tactical retreat had already taken place by the time lawmakers convened for a brief pre-election session.

On June 30, he said a Republican "year of obstruction" had prevented passage of sweeping immigration legislation. He said he would do what he could to fix the system on his own.

A week ago, he announced a delay, blaming it on a surge of immigrant children into the country that he said had altered the politics surrounding the issue. In an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press," Obama denied he had deferred to protect Democratic candidates worried about their prospects in tough Senate races.

Privately, though, Democrats had argued that a pre-election announcement could work to their disadvantage, particularly in states with highly competitive Senate races and relatively small Hispanic populations.

Republicans weren't buying Obama's explanation.

Said McConnell of the president: "He's just saying he'll go around the law once it's too late for Americans to hold his party accountable in the November elections."

Published: Tue, Sep 16, 2014