Pennsylvania Ave. keeps getting longer
A tax-cut vote this week shows how far apart President Bush and Congress have grown.
WASHINGTON — "I'm a uniter, not a divider," George W. Bush intoned over and over when he ran for president in 2000. His record of bipartisan bonhomie as governor of Texas - and the legislative accomplishments it produced - boded well for a Bush presidency that could lift Washington out of its harshly partisan gridlock.
But Washington isn't Austin, Texas: The national Republican and Democratic parties represent a broader range of views than the parties in Bush's home state. And an American president can wield more power with Congress than a Texas governor can in the state legislature.
Now, in the heat of tax-cut week in Washington, the partisan divide couldn't be sharper, and a president who has boosted executive-branch clout to pre-Watergate levels is once again trolling for just enough votes to pass major legislation.
"It's intense," says Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a conservative Democrat who's being wooed by the White House to back a tax-cut package larger than $350 billion over 10 years.
Late Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a $550 billion tax cut - lower than the $726 billion that Bush originally proposed, but well above the $350 billion ceiling set by key senators. The bill, which would reduce, but not eliminate, taxes on stock dividends and capital gains, is expected to pass the House Friday. As is his pattern with controversial legislation, Bush will likely pressure the Senate with the more conservative House version.
But many Senate moderates don't like the way this White House and its allies do business. Jim Jeffords (I) of Vermont says the political climate that led him to quit the GOP two years ago is back. Two moderate Republican senators, George Voino-vich of Ohio and Olympia Snowe of Maine, have been slammed in TV ads by an antitax group. Though the group is independent of the White House, analysts presume it would halt the ads if the administration asked it to.
Bush has also been traveling around the country to states where his advisers believe key senators can be pressured into backing his plan, with its stated aim of stimulating the sluggish economy - and, by extension, help Bush win reelection.
But as fence-sitting Democrats weigh their options on the tax cut, one name comes up regularly in conversation: Max Cleland. The Democratic former senator from Georgia voted with the president on his first big tax cut in 2001, only to see the White House target him for defeat, successfully, in last fall's elections.
"It is ugly," says Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "Democrats, including the most conservative in the two bodies, save for Zell Miller [Georgia's other senator], have absolutely no trust in the president. They believe he's out to get them.... They believe supporting him will not be helpful in any way."
Since Bush took office in January 2001, Washington has been on a roller-coaster ride of partisan animosity, punctuated by periods of intense unity following 9/11 and during wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush has surprised pundits by aggressively pushing a conservative agenda, at times without much consultation with Congress - though his close, controversial election promised only a limited mandate. The Republicans' narrow control of both houses of Congress also seemed to portend collaboration.
Indeed, the big education bill that Bush signed in his first year was hailed as a model of bipartisanship. He dropped some of the more conservative provisions, such as vouchers, pleasing Democrats but irritating his conservative base. Still, his base couldn't be too aggrieved, because the president had earlier that year won his first big tax cut, $1.3 trillion over 10 years.
On other issues, such as prescription drugs for seniors, the White House has floated plans with Congress, been shot down, and responded with an easy, "Fine. You guys come up with something."
But on an issue as central as the sluggish economy, Bush prefers to work from the outside in - cooking a plan in the White House, then relying on his conservative Republican base in Congress to bring the rest of the party, and a few conservative Democrats, along. Bush's supporters couldn't be happier.
"These last two or three Congresses have produced an astoundingly successful track record," says Michael Franc, congressional analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "This White House is like a sports team that goes out every night and wins by one point."
By another measure, the first two years of Bush's dealings with Congress were a resounding success, despite a Democratic takeover of the Senate just five months into his term. On votes in which Bush took a clear position, Congress voted with him 87 percent (2001) and 88 percent (2002) of the time - the highest scores since President Johnson in 1965, according to Congressional Quarterly. One key to that high score, says CQ's David Hawkings, is that Bush often did not make his position known, so the score was based on a relatively small number of votes.
Pat Griffin, who was the Clinton White House's liaison with Congress for two years, also looks at current relations from the perspective of what Bush is trying to achieve - and sees a successful operation. "Their goals have tended to be keeping the Republicans in line, and then adding a few D's [Democrats] to dress it up," he says. But, he adds, "to reach real solutions on Medicare, prescription drugs, and dealing with more nuanced elements of the economy, he needs a bipartisan way."