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Hurricanes Backdrop to Political Battles in Congress

Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been battling over a number of issues, with debate dominated by spending for hurricane relief, the state of the economy, and the situation in Iraq. Republicans in the House of Representatives are vowing to press ahead with their agenda despite stepped up attacks from Democrats, and legal troubles facing the former House Republican leader.

In the heat of political battles fought each day in Congress, Democrats and Republicans use consistent, and familiar, labels.

Majority Republicans dismiss Democrats as big-spenders trying to obstruct Republican efforts at fiscal discipline, while attacking Bush administration efforts in Iraq.

Democrats accuse Republicans of favoring wealthy Americans, and most recently using a complex budget-reduction process to slash key domestic programs.

Recently, both sides have used the widespread devastation caused by hurricanes as a tool in seeking to gain political advantage and persuade Americans.

Under plans set out earlier this year, Republican leaders in the House and Senate are working to cut at least $35 billion in mandatory and "discretionary" [optional] spending from the government budget.

Pressured by fiscal conservatives, Republican House leaders vow to increase that to $50 billion, cutting still more to offset the costs of reconstruction from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Congressman Mike Pence is among House conservatives insisting on what they describe as "compassionate fiscal discipline."

"House Republicans are united in our commitment to respond to Hurricane Katrina with compassion, generosity and fiscal discipline," he said. "And House conservatives are united behind the bold plan outlined by [House] Speaker Dennis Hastert to do that by practicing fiscal discipline for which our party was awarded power in 1994 here on Capitol Hill."

Democrats assert there is nothing compassionate about Republican budget plans, either for hurricane victims or Americans reliant on government programs facing cuts.

"Fiscally irresponsible policies that will make the deficit larger tomorrow, will put our country deeper into debt tomorrow, will put our children and their children deeper into debt tomorrow, and at the same time, they will cut assistance to the very people who have been put in such need by [hurricanes] Katrina and Rita," said Congressman Steny Hoyer.

Democrats note that programs affected by cuts are those for health care for the poor and elderly, food assistance, and student loans.

House Republican leaders describe their budget plans as "common sense" reforms in difficult times, and renew charges that all Democrats know how to do is "tax and spend."

South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson made that point on the floor of the House.

"Democrats seem to view the budget as a credit card, and when the bill gets too high, they pay for the bill by simply raising taxes on the American people," said Mr. Wilson.

Congressman Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, responded.

"They keep talking about the Democrats taxing and spending," said Mr. DeFazio. "Excuse me, who runs the White House, the U.S. House of Representatives with an iron hand, and the U.S. Senate? The Republicans. They're in charge of everything. It is the president who is submitting budgets that are being approved by Republicans that are running up huge and growing deficits."

The debate over how to attain further cuts in the budget takes place as House Republicans adjust to a new leadership situation resulting from legal problems facing their former leader, Congressman Tom DeLay.

Congressman Roy Blunt, acting as majority leader while Mr. DeLay faces conspiracy and money laundering charges in Texas, told reporters the situation would not affect Republican determination, adding that the budget issue is a good opportunity for Republicans to demonstrate unity.

Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to take advantage of the ethical difficulties of Mr. DeLay, problems other Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist are having, and the situation in Iraq, as they look toward mid-term congressional elections in 2006 they hope could return them to power.