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Washington During War

Holding an election during war hasn't happened in the US since 1972, when the Vietnam War was tailing off. But the Bush war on terrorism, which is likely to continue through November's elections for Congress, features a big difference from the divisiveness of the Nixon years: Public trust in the federal government has shot up since Sept. 11, as have the president's ratings.

No wonder then that George W. Bush has staked out 2002 as a "war year." Last year, his goals were tax cuts and education reform, both of which he mostly won. Now, with Democrats controlling the Senate, he hopes the unsheathed sword of war will be a shield against any political thrusts from the Hill.

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His State of the Union address next week will no doubt focus on national security, as it should. But he can't ignore the strong political currents of the coming election, in which control of the House, Senate, and one-third of governorships is at stake.

The threat of more terrorism has put a spotlight on the federal government, and members of Congress must work harder to act accordingly.

They did display wartime bipartisanship last fall by passing antiterror laws that were nicely balanced. But now the old temptations of division are upon them in wrangling over budget priorities and in smoking out any scandal in Enron's political ties.

Having taken more campaign money from Enron than Democrats, Republicans will be on the defensive in the hydra-headed congressional probes because of their party leaders' backing of energy deregulation and their opposition to campaign reform.

Democrats, while less tainted by Enron, won't be able to turn on the spending spigot for their pet programs in the face of war spending, recession, and big tax cuts.

Still, both parties will be hunting for a few "wedge" issues to use in their fall campaigns. That kind of tactic is likely to influence what actually gets passed this year.

Perhaps the war spirit will win out and Congress will start out on bipartisan footing and do the following:

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• Improve national security by tightening up immigration rules and further securing air travel.

• Pass the Shays-Meehan campaign-finance reform bill as a big step toward preventing more Enron-style corruption of the political process.

• Pass a measure to support states in vote-counting reforms to prevent another Florida-like election debacle.

• Fix the laws governing 401(k) pensions, accounting rules, and other financial areas that Enron exploited.

Washington cannot afford to lose the renewed trust of Americans. Despite the fiscal red ink and electoral competition, voters are looking for substance, not grandstanding.


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