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Congress faces changing landscape

Hurricane, gas prices, war affect legislative plans, lawmakers say

WASHINGTON -- As Congress returns from its August recess today, Republicans face a far more troubling political landscape than the one they left a month ago, according to lawmakers in both parties.

Gasoline prices have skyrocketed, the Bush administration is being widely criticized for its handling of Hurricane Katrina, and as the war in Iraq grows increasingly unpopular, the president's approval ratings have sunk to a new low. Further complicating the picture is a rare double vacancy on the Supreme Court, which could trigger sniping between the GOP's center and right wing if not deftly handled.

''We're going to have a busy time," said the majority leader, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee.

As the pressure on Republicans builds, Democrats are sounding more emboldened. One sign of GOP unease: the Senate was supposed to vote this week on whether to permanently repeal the estate tax, but Frist said yesterday the bill would be temporarily shelved. The announcement came two hours after Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and the minority leader, called for Republicans to back off tax cuts in the wake of the Katrina tragedy. ''Not now, for heaven's sake," Reid said.

Lawmakers in both parties said surging gas prices and spot shortages are leading concerns in their states and districts, and Democrats will try to get the upper hand by calling for price caps and a requirement that oil companies and refineries disclose their pricing policies. Frist said Republicans would proceed with legislation to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Another immediate concern will be disaster relief. Frist, a surgeon who spent the weekend treating hurricane victims in New Orleans, said the Senate would focus on several Katrina-related matters, including aid to victims, rebuilding and economic development assistance, and examining the many ways government fell short in dealing with the crisis. ''We're going to take a hard, hard look at our disaster response," Frist said.

While congressional Republicans facing re-election next year are unhappy with Bush's slide in the polls, there is no sense of panic, said Stu Rothenberg, who writes an independent political newsletter. ''But inevitably, if we continue to see a softening in the president's numbers, every Republican is going to be expressing some concern, if not alarm."

The biggest wild card, Republicans said, is the war in Iraq. The dominant issue before Katrina will resurface when Congress tries to complete a defense bill.

''People don't see light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq," said Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican. ''If the situation a year from now is the same, it's going to be the number one issue in the next election, and consequently for incumbent Republicans, a problem."

One of the more vulnerable GOP members is Representative Mike Fitzpatrick, a freshman from a moderate district in the Philadelphia suburbs. Fitzpatrick does not air his concerns publicly, as a few Republicans are beginning to do, but he is worried about the safety of US troops and has written to the Pentagon pressing for improved body armor and vehicle protection.

''I think everyone is on the edge of their seat right now, hoping for the best, but preparing for what comes next," Fitzpatrick said. If the situation does not improve soon, ''I think you will see more members of Congress speaking up generally," Fitzpatrick said.

Katrina could have bolstered Bush's standing, but instead his response might have weakened his standing in Congress, particularly among lawmakers from the affected Gulf Coast region.

Even before Katrina hit, Republicans were struggling to keep their agenda on track. They had made little progress with revamping Social Security, but overhauling immigration was gaining momentum.

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