WASHINGTON — President Bush's 60-day nationwide campaign for Social Security overhaul ends on Sunday. Hearings have started in the Senate Finance Committee, but Social Security no longer enjoys top political billing in the nation's capital.
Both chambers of Congress seem preoccupied with their own power struggles. The House, over whether there will be rules in the Ethics Committee that will permit a meaningful investigation of majority leader Tom DeLay and his lobbyist-financed globe trotting. The Senate, over the confirmation of the pugnacious John Bolton as United Nations ambassador. And a battle looms over the confirmation of two second-chance nominees to the Federal Court of Appeals - both women, one black - approved by the Judiciary Committee and sent to the floor as a test of Democratic threats to stop them by filibuster.
The strange thing is that in both chambers the Republicans, despite their solid majorities, are acting as though they are not quite sure of their ground. And they have been acting that way since the leadership, in the early hours of March 21, injected Congress into the bitter Terri Schiavo controversy and ended up being roundly condemned in national opinion polls for overreaching.
So now, it is the Republicans who seem to be reaching out for compromise - in the House on Ethics Committee rules, and in the Senate on an agreed number of judicial appointments that would not be filibustered. And it is the Democrats who seem ready for the fray, with threats to bring Congress to a grinding halt if the filibuster is abolished.
Senate majority leader Bill Frist, in his videotaped contribution to a Christian conservative telecast Sunday, said that if the Democrats continue to obstruct the confirmation process, "We will consider what opponents call the nuclear option." That refers to a way of bypassing the filibuster by changing the rules, which can be accomplished by a simple majority.
With 55 Senate seats held by the GOP, that should be no problem. But apparently there is a problem. As demonstrated in the spirited fight in the Foreign Relations Committee over Mr. Bolton, the Democrats seem united; the Republicans do not. Senator Frist must be aware that opinion polls reflect a general lack of enthusiasm for abolishing the filibuster.
The defection of a single Republican, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, tied up the Bolton nomination in the Foreign Relations Committee. This suggests that there may be more trouble ahead for the GOP leadership - something that could hardly have been imagined after the Republican sweep last November.
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.