Cracks are now showing in Congress's unified surface
Leaders of both parties scramble to bridge deep divisions on energy policy, tax cuts, and trade.
WASHINGTON — When congressional leaders sit with President Bush to talk about how to make the nation safe or the economy sound, the bipartisan spirit is real.
So is the respect. Congress has soared in public esteem since its members stood shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Bush in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
But the circle of those cutting new bipartisan deals has shrunk sharply in the last month. Many members are frustrated by all the closed meetings and briefings that tell them less than the newspapers do. In the new "unity" Congress, they don't count, and the strain is showing.
On issues such as tax cuts, trade, and energy, deep divisions are testing the new spirit of statesmanship. It's more than old-style partisanship reasserting itself. It's also a struggle within parties for members to find a role at a time of national crisis, when all signals are for strong direction from the top.
Conservative Republicans are chafing at a bipartisan economic-stimulus strategy they see coming out of the White House. In the Senate, leaders on both sides of the aisle spend their days "putting down insurrections," says Minority Leader Trent Lott.
"On an hourly basis, we're seeing the bipartisan harmony being severely challenged," says Marshall Wittmann, an analyst for the Hudson Institute here.
One of the hottest points of contention is the shape of a new stimulus package to revive the economy. Discussions had been proceeding on high-level, bipartisan lines. In a surprise move, the top four budget leaders in both parties announced agreement last week on a common set of numbers for how much of the budget surplus had been spent - and how much was about to be spent.
It's no trivial accomplishment. Partisan firestorms had raged for months around the issue of how much Social Security surplus had been spent - and who was to blame. In the interest of maintaining public confidence in Congress at a time of crisis, they laid down their swords, they said.
But House Republicans broke ranks last week, when it looked like Democratic priorities - such as more spending - were gaining ground. Conservative Republicans wanted more tax cuts for business. They worried that in the interest of bipartisanship, the White House was cutting them out.
"Groups like ours were absolutely frustrated that the White House appeared to be triangulating out the conservatives by being bipartisan," says Stephen Moore, head of Club for Growth, which has close ties to many conservative in Congress.
Bypassing high-level talks altogether, William Thomas (R) of California, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is proposing an open meeting today to write a stimulus package from the ground up.
Within Congress, the biggest threat to bipartisan cooperation is the tendency on both sides of the aisle to repackage controversial programs under the rubric of "anti-terrorism."
House Democrats were outraged this week when the Ways and Means Committee moved a bill to give the president new authority to negotiate free-trade agreements. "It's an overreach to try to make trade part of security policy," says Rep. Tim Roemer (D) of Indiana.
On the Senate side, efforts to include an energy bill as part of a response to terrorist attacks are also challenging a bipartisan spirit. The House had already passed a controversial energy bill, but it faced tougher prospects in the Democratic-controlled Senate. After Sept. 11, Republicans repackaged the bill, which includes drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as critical to national security. Oil from ANWR could cover 30 years of Saudi oil or 57 years of Iraqi oil, sponsors said.
But the issue is still bitterly contentious in the Senate. To force a vote on such an issue at a time of national crisis "would bring an end to the bipartisan cooperation that has distinguished this institution, and give the public a reason to be ashamed of us," Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona told colleagues.
Tuesday, the Senate Democratic leadership directed the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to suspend further work on the bill. Instead, a new bill will be negotiated directly with the White House.
For many members, those high-level negotiations are frustrating. Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin turned to obstructionist tactics on the Senate floor this week to voice concerns about how Democratic leadership was negotiating an antiterrorist package with the White House. "I know how hard the leaders and the chairman and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee have been working on this bill," he said. "But there has been no opportunity ... for senators to raise concerns about how far this bill goes in giving broad new powers to law enforcement."