GOP, Dems focus on messages as summer recess, elections near

House Democrats have a plan for helping students afford the growing costs of college, in part by creating a partnership with states to provide two years of tuition-free community college. They also want to take $5 billion House Republicans have proposed for President Donald Trump's long-promised wall with Mexico and divert it to other immigration programs.

One House-passed bill, backed mostly by Republicans, would repeal a tax imposed on some medical devices to help pay for the "Obamacare" health care law, a statute the GOP despises. With another, still a bare-bones outline, Republicans would make last year's $1.5 trillion tax cut permanent and expand reductions for families, homeschooling and businesses.

Lawmakers promoted each of these efforts this week, though none seems likely to become law soon. Yet while the measures may languish, they perform an age-old campaign-season function for both parties: honing their messages for elections, just over 100 days away, in which the prize is congressional control.

The House starts summer recess at week's end, and lawmakers need arguments to take home for town halls and for campaign advertising. Democrats need to gain 23 seats in November's midterms to capture House control, which is widely seen as doable, so both sides are producing measures that may go nowhere but can shore up political weak spots or embarrass the other party.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., amplified the GOP message to reporters on Tuesday, giving Republicans credit for the strengthening economy and using Democrats as a foil.

"They've scoffed at Americans who've benefited from more money in their paychecks," he said, referring to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's comparison of GOP tax cuts for the wealthy to the "crumbs" that went to lower earners. "They're determined to erase this progress. Even more, they want to take this country to a dramatically different place, to the far left."

As evidence, Ryan cited recent proposals from Democrats' liberal wing to abolish U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement and push for "Medicare for All," or government-paid health care. Many Democrats have distanced themselves from both ideas.

Democrats produced ammunition of their own. They announced their "Aim Higher Act," which would make higher education more affordable and restrict federal aid for for-profit schools often criticized for huge student loan defaults. They contrasted it with a GOP bill that would create new partnerships between colleges and industry but also limit how much federal education money students could borrow.

"We want a world where parents don't have to choose between college for their kids or paying the rent," said Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif.

On the House Appropriations Committee, Democrats were trying to pare the $5 billion for Trump's border wall in Republican legislation financing the Homeland Security Department. Democrats' real clout to force that number down resides in the narrowly divided Senate, which will have to reach compromise with the House before the figure is finalized. But meanwhile, Democrats will be able to argue to liberals, Hispanics and other supporters that they battled Trump's wall proposal.

A sizable hurdle facing GOP messaging plans is Trump, who dominates the spotlight by abruptly swerving onto distracting issues. That's recently included Trump's praising Russian President Vladimir Putin while challenging his own intelligence and law enforcement agencies, defending tariffs he's imposed that threaten trade wars and considering the removal of security clearances for political opponents. He's since said he trusts U.S. intelligence, but has also invited Putin to the White House.

With their latest tax cut push, Republicans hope to draw attention to an age-old GOP priority and appeal to constituencies including businesses, high-earners and conservative homeschooling families.

Republicans are paying particular attention to health care, which polls show remains a top concern for voters. Democrats see it as their issue, thanks to lingering resentment over GOP efforts to dismantle former President Barack Obama's now-popular law. With most states planning to unveil 2019 premiums just before the elections and many expecting significant increases, Republicans who have run Washington since January 2017 say they need to show progress, or at least blame Democrats for lack of it.

"Moderates and independents, that group right now is not in love with Republicans," said Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga. He said Republicans must show those voters that "we're trying to head in the right direction" but are being blocked by Democrats.

Republicans pushed a bill through the House Tuesday eliminating the 2.3 percent tax on many medical devices. The measure seems unlikely to survive in the Senate, where Democrats have enough votes to derail it. But there are device manufacturers in virtually every state, and Republicans hope the votes most Democrats cast to preserve the tax will hurt them in November.

Also moving in the House this week are a GOP bill helping people buy health insurance with skimpier coverage than Obama's law allows and a measure letting people use tax-advantaged health savings accounts to buy over-the-counter drugs.

In the Senate, which is planning a shorter recess, the brewing fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is becoming another messaging battlefield.

Republicans are using Kavanaugh's record on issues like gun rights and religious liberty to energize conservative voters. Democrats are stirring up their supporters by citing their expectation that he would rule against abortion rights and Obama's health law.