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Tuesday, April 1

Lawmakers invoke troops to justify almost everything

By Mike Madden | GNS

WASHINGTON - Cut taxes? Sure, Republicans say, let's do it for the troops. Don't cut taxes? That's right, Democrats say, it's better for the troops.

With daily tributes to the armed services, special tax breaks for soldiers and a slew of symbolic gestures, members of Congress have gone out of their way to support the troops since U.S. and British forces began dropping bombs on Baghdad nearly two weeks ago.

But business as usual is continuing in wartime Washington as well, only with rhetoric that tries somehow to link political fights over the budget, tax cuts, domestic spending and everything else to the war.

Since the war started, the House Republican leadership has pressed members to vote for President Bush's 2004 budget so as not to hand him an embarrassing defeat in the midst of war - and potentially demoralize the troops. Senate Democrats have said they oppose the same budget because it's not good for the troops. Both parties seem to be trying their best to drape their agendas in patriotism.

"There is a genuine nationwide surge in patriotism when we're in conflict, and members of Congress are not immune,'' said Norm Ornstein, who studies Congress and politics at the American Enterprise Institute. "People, whatever their positions on the war, like to have the armor of protection that comes from focusing on their support of the troops. ...You're going to use whatever levers you have - including the popularity of a larger theme - to tie it to something else you're trying to do.''

Support for the men and women fighting in Iraq hasn't been limited to purely symbolic or rhetorical measures. Last week, Congress passed a $1.1 billion tax cut for soldiers and their families, giving them special breaks on home sales, travel expenses and death benefits.

On Tuesday, the House passed a bipartisan bill that would give troops amnesty from student loan payments while they are overseas. And Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is contemplating legislation to exempt spouses of servicemen and women from federal or state taxes while the war lasts.

Many lawmakers - from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to Rep. Darlene Hooley, D-Ore. - have put information on their Web sites about how to send packages to deployed troops. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican whose district includes Fort Campbell, has a link on her site where visitors can send postcards to families of servicemen and women.

Show of support

In more symbolic steps, the House has passed resolutions warning Saddam Hussein not to torture prisoners of war or to use chemical weapons against U.S. and British soldiers.

The Senate has spent some time every day since the war began to praise constituents serving overseas. South Dakota Democrats Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader, made some of the first speeches, talking about Johnson's son Brooks, an Army sergeant serving in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division. Johnson's son is believed to be the only child of a lawmaker currently serving in Iraq.

"Every night that we go home and live in relative comfort, I hope that we keep in mind these hundreds of thousands of our troops who this very night, many of them are sleeping in a hole in the sand two or three feet deep to protect themselves from shrapnel during the course of the evening, in blowing sand, horrible weather, fierce snipers, bombs, biological, chemical warfare that could arise at any moment,'' Johnson said.

On most of these symbolic measures, Republicans and Democrats alike have come together to show their patriotism. But a House resolution supporting Bush and the troops that passed the day after the war, bogged down when some Democrats objected to praising Bush's leadership. It passed with 11 ``no'' votes and 22 abstentions in the end.

Patriotism or politics?

On more substantive policy issues, "supporting the troops'' has been divisive as well.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer infuriated some Democrats when he said recently that Bush wanted billions of dollars in tax cuts so that "the economy can grow and that jobs can be created, so that when our men and women in the military return home, they'll have jobs to come home to.'' Fleischer's quote later wound up in a Democratic Party fund-raising e-mail blasting Republicans for using the war for political purposes.

But Daschle and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California have resorted to similar rhetoric in their own statements against the tax cuts. "It is sadly ironic that at the same time we are asking our young people to fight a war for our security, Republicans are passing a budget that will force those same young people to pay the bill for their recklessness,'' Daschle said after the administration's budget narrowly passed the House.

Observers like Ornstein say none of this is surprising, but that deploying "for the troops'' rhetoric in unrelated political fights may make genuine shows of support look less sincere. Besides, it's not likely any soldiers in combat are paying close attention to what Congress says it's doing in their name.

"The troops are focused on the mission at hand and not particularly caught up one way or the other with what goes on back here,'' Ornstein said.