The fall

Republican leaders in the upper chamber could have done without Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) giving them a month’s notice. His resignation, effective Sept. 30, means lawmakers returning to work on Tuesday can expect excruciating encounters as the news media chase Craig around the Capitol.

Still, Craig’s decision to quit is a huge relief to the GOP. When Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) mused that his party could win Craig’s seat, it was less a statement of fact than a token of his confidence, as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, that he would preside over a second successive electoral triumph, one that could create a
filibuster-proof Democratic majority if everything falls into place for the left.

Schumer would much rather have campaigned in a deep red state against an incumbent tainted by lewd soliciting in a men’s room than against a one-year stand-in likely to retain most of Idaho’s majority conservatives. The horrific electoral prospect for the GOP of defending 22 seats with a slate of candidates including a toilet toe-tapper underscored Minority Leader Mitch
McConnell’s (R-Ky.) move to cut Craig loose so swiftly.

 Even without the Craig factor, Tuesday ushers in the most turbulent three or four months of this legislative and electoral cycle.

There is a huge legislative agenda, headed by appropriations bills and Iraq, which means Congress will probably be in session nearly until Christmas. The pressure to stay will be particularly acute because the presidential election will hog all the political oxygen after New Year’s.

Ironically, however, the primary season will be almost over by then. With the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in the first half of January, and with states containing more than half the nation’s population making their pick by Feb. 5, the real campaign season is now. There will be a six-month lull in public attention between Feb. 5 and next summer’s conventions.

So, in the next few months, presidential candidates from Capitol Hill will be scrambling to win voters without handing rivals ammunition by missing high-profile congressional work. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has made it plain that he will extend his schedule as necessary to move his agenda. If that means candidates having to rearrange weekend campaign trips at the last minute, well, that’s tough luck.

Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) head committees that are deeply involved in the fall legislative and oversight schedule. But their rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), will need to pay just as much attention to congressional work, and do some unofficial whipping to check whether they can safely skip town and not get tagged with a crucial lost vote. The same goes for Republican White House hopefuls on Capitol Hill.

 It has always been difficult for senators to win the White House. This cycle, senators are well placed to do so. But high-profile legislative issues and an unusually competitive electoral race will ensure that the nominees will have shown their mettle.