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As election nears, Congress moves to appeal to core voters

WASHINGTON -- The Republican-controlled Congress seems to be struggling lately to carry out its most basic mission: passing legislation.

A proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage failed miserably. Long-debated immigration legislation has reached an impasse. The House passed a line-item veto and estate tax measures that face significant hurdles in the Senate, while the Senate devoted a week to impassioned debates over Iraq that resulted in two failed Democratic resolutions.

Democratic critics are reviving Harry Truman's taunt about a ``Do-Nothing Congress." But many Republicans say they are where they want to be as they head into the November elections, which will determine whether they retain the House and Senate majorities.

In every instance, GOP leaders pushed legislation known to have little or no chance of enactment, but also known to appeal to conservative voters, whose turnout is crucial to the party's success.

Tomorrow, Senate Republicans will launch debate on what many Democrats consider the king of cynical, election-oriented bills: a proposed constitutional amendment banning desecration of the American flag.

Senators say it is possible they have the two-thirds majority needed for passage, but analysts in both parties say it hardly matters. The flag amendment is red meat for conservative audiences, and it is no surprise that Republicans are rolling it out with eight legislative weeks left in the election year.

``There's no question that they are trotting out their hardy perennials," said Matt Bennett, a former Democratic staff member who is vice president of Third Way, a centrist think tank. ``They're done purely for political gamesmanship. . . . No one can go to the floor and say `The citizens of my district are demanding we take up the flag amendment.' "

When Democrats controlled the House and Senate, they, too, were known to bring up doomed bills for campaign purposes. But some say that Republicans perfected the strategy in 2004 by championing an antigay marriage amendment that was certain to fail but only after long and loud debates.

This month, Senate Republicans forced another vote on the same-sex marriage ban proposal, and it again fell far short of the needed votes. It even lost the support of two GOP senators who had backed it in 2004. In light of the vote, plus the public's deep concern about the Iraq war, some Democrats say they believe that thinly veiled use of the House and Senate floors to fire up voters may prove less effective this fall, or even backfire.

``The gay marriage political ploy was a master stroke in 2004, but it is not working this year," said Bennett, who closely follows polls and focus groups. Voters want serious debates on serious issues, he said, not ``flag burning and this other nonsense. . . . I am highly skeptical that this is smart politics."

In public, Republicans reject the charges of cynicism. ``The notion that lowering taxes on American families, reducing government waste, and reining in activist judges aren't legitimate issues that merit debate is absurd," said Tracey Schmitt, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

Privately, however, some Republicans acknowledge that certain votes are taken to create good campaign issues, and they accuse Democrats of doing the same. They point, for example, to the Democrats' annual insistence on a vote to increase the minimum wage, which has failed for nine straight years.

Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, said his boss tries hard to pass meaningful legislation.

He cited Hastert's role in recently passing a major spending bill for the war and hurricane relief and a tax-cut extension.

Yet the House and Senate remain far apart on immigration, and Democrats blame Hastert, Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, and President Bush for doing little to resolve the differences.

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