Bush Faces Test In Ties With Congress


THE affability and accommodation that George Bush has restored between the White House and Congress still prevail. But this fall, Mr. Bush will face a much sterner test of his personal diplomacy than in his first seven months as president.

The season of tough decisions is arriving, forced by final budget deadlines coming in October.

``The relationship is already beginning to show cracks, and the closer you get to harder decisions the more frayed it's going to get,'' says Democratic consultant Robert Beckel.

``We are braced for a confrontational fall, but on substantive issues, not a repeat of the fratricide of last spring,'' National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman John Buckley says, referring to the ethics probes that consumed the House of Representatives.

``Circumstances are going to bring accommodation perilously close to ending,'' says former Senate Budget Committee staff director Stephen Bell, now manager of the Washington office of Salomon Brothers.

Goodwill and bridge-building have been Bush trademarks, a sharp change from the strong ideological stands that President Reagan took against the Democrats in Congress.

Bush took office in a weaker position than did Reagan eight years earlier, and Bush has made strategic adjustments. Reagan had a Republican-controlled Senate for six years, and he was elected by a discontented electorate that handed him a mandate for change. Bush faces Democrats leading both houses of Congress, and if he has any clear mandate, it is for general continuity.

For months, Bush administration officials have centered their planning for this fall on keeping bipartisanship alive in Congress.

Bipartisan harmony, however, is growing more difficult for several reasons:

New leadership, led by Speaker Tom Foley of Washington, has the House almost in order and is more able to take strong action.

Political peace has mostly come on White House terms. For congressional Democrats, Mr. Bell says, accommodation has ``all kind of been taken out of their hides'' - while Bush enjoys approval ratings near 70 percent.

With 1990 elections coming up, hawks in both parties are spoiling to form partisan battlelines in anticipation of congressional campaigns.

The differences on some of the issues coming up are stark and strongly held.

On some of them, ``confrontation will develop or the administration will get rolled,'' warns Gary Bauer, director of the Family Research Council and domestic policy adviser under Reagan.

If battle lines indeed harden, it is not yet clear who will benefit.

It may be a political benefit to the Republican Party at the expense of Republican legislative goals.

``Sometimes it's worth losing a legislative fight in order to make a larger political point that will redound to your benefit later,'' Mr. Bauer says.

Later means in the 1990 elections. Some Republicans have been impatient with Bush's conciliatory style all along because they prefer to distinguish themselves from Democrats rather than finding common ground.

Mr. Beckel says the White House holds the advantage in the legislative battle this fall.

``Bush has been fairly adept at sort of outpacing Congress one way or another,'' he says.

Bell, however, suspects that the Democrats are in a better strategic position because the White House has more to lose if negotiations fail in the automatic, across-the-board cuts of the Gramm-Rudman law.

Any or all of a short list of issues could become scenes of confrontation.

Bush's effort to cut the capital-gains tax, supported by some conservative Democrats, is considered a fundamental fairness issue by the Democratic leadership, which opposes the cut. It is a close-fought battle in which the advantage has shifted back and forth all summer.

The House dealt Bush his most serious defeat by rewriting his defense budget request with different weapons priorities. The House voted to continue several weapons programs the White House planned to retire, such as Air Force F-15E fighter plane and the Navy Phoenix missile. The House cut mostly research and development programs from the White House proposals. The administration, with Senate help, will be battling hard to win back control of defense plans.

Bush favors a tax credit for child-care expenses, rather than the subsidies to parents or child-care centers in congressional plans. Child-care bills have a high political priority in both parties this year.

Congress is divided over repealing or modifying catastrophic illness medical insurance. The White House wants no change in the program this year because it would add to the budget deficit.

Three of these issues - capital gains, child care, and catastrophic illness insurance - will be fought out as part of a deficit-cutting package called a reconciliation bill. It is due Oct. 15.

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