THUS far in the Bush presidency Congress and the White House have a generally good relationship. ``Things are going along smoothly,'' says David Mason of the Heritage Foundation, formerly a Defense Department deputy assistant secretary charged with working with Congress.
Nonetheless, in the long run that relationship may become more challenging. Political scientists give several reasons: Possible clashes over domestic needs, defense costs, and the budget deficit; a continued White House-Congress struggle to control the massive federal bureaucracy; and White House efforts to recapture some presidential powers seized by Congress during the 1980s.
But for now relations are good, and George Bush's personal touch is the most important reason, political observers say. Bush tries to reach out to members of Congress personally, as well as to inform them about what the administration is doing: He briefed them on developments on the Philippines and on the Malta summit, for example.
``He often has members of Congress down [to the White House] for a reception in the evening, or for tennis,'' says a top Senate Democratic aide. ``Politicians are just like other human beings'' - they respond to personal attention and warmth.
These niceties produce good personal relations, which lead to good political ties, says John Rother, legislative director of the American Association of Retired Persons and former staff director of the Senate Committee on Aging.
``My personal experience with the president has always been extremely positive in terms of our communications and personal relations,'' says House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington. ```Cordial' is an apt description, I think.''
There's more to the current smooth relations than just the president's effective personal touch, of course. One element is Mr. Bush's moderation: ``He's willing to take much more moderate positions than Reagan was, and that makes it easier to deal with Congress,'' Mr. Mason notes. Democratic congressional leaders George Mitchell, the Senate majority leader, and Speaker Foley in the House similarly are moderate, which further eases relations.
In addition, there's the president's high public popularity, a 79 percent approval rating. That gives his views on most issues instant credibility on Capitol Hill, though it does not ensure him of automatic approval.
Finally, there's the president's limited agenda. ``What does Bush want from Congress? My answer is: `Not very much,''' Mr. Rother says. It's easier to have good ties with Congress when you're not making heavy legislative demands on it, he adds.
Nonetheless, a testing time may be ahead.
``Bush uses the rhetoric of conciliation,'' says Craig Rimmerman, a professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. ``But the realities of his budget suggest that eventually there is going to be substantial conflict'' with Congress on social and defense issues.
``The question is what the Democrats are going to do to respond,'' Professor Rimmerman says. With an election this year they want to provide programs for voters, but not be tarred with the tax-and-spend label.
Another potential challenge: the battle to control the federal bureaucracy. In the last few years ``that has become a very important area'' of competition for power between the two government branches, says William West, a political science professor at Texas A & M University.
``As Congress has continued to delegate policy [issues] to the bureaucracy, both the president and the Congress have realized the importance of controlling the bureaucracy,'' Professor West explains. Congress, for instance, often leaves it to federal agencies to draw up the sweeping regulations that will put new laws into action.
Early in his presidency Ronald Reagan issued an executive order that required federal agencies to submit proposed regulations, plus a cost-benefit analysis, to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in the executive branch, for clearance. President Bush has continued this procedure, West says.
``The President through OMB is actually trying to influence the substance of policies'' of the federal departments, West adds.
One more potential sticking point in White House-Congress relations is the efforts of the Bush administration to take back some of the power that Congress seized during the early 1980s, Mason says. It was back then that Congress began the still-current practice of telling federal agencies exactly how they must spend some of the money that Congress gives them - or how they are forbidden to spend it.
Even when disagreements crop up between Congress and the White House, as some inevitably do, they ought not be viewed as a failure of the political process. ``In our disagreement,'' says Speaker Foley, ``I don't see bickering. I see the process of political, parliamentary democracy working out its challenges in a way that has become the model around the world.''