After five months of seeing its agenda sail through Congress, the Bush administration is finding the waters choppier. And on some key issues, it's the president's own party rocking the boat.
Almost overnight, Republican lawmakers in both the House and the Senate are adopting stances - on a host of issues - that are at odds with positions taken by the White House. Consider these developments:
* As part of its energy policy, the White House has favored more oil and gas exploration. But last week, the Republican-controlled House passed two measures restricting drilling and exploration.
* President Bush has backed an amendment to the patients' bill of rights that would shield employers from lawsuits. On Tuesday, however, a group of moderate Senate Republicans helped defeat it.
* Conservative Republicans in both chambers are balking at the Bush administration's plans to expand the government's relationship with faith-based groups.
While many suspected that the change in Senate leadership would mean a more pugnacious group of Democrats, the Republican moves are more surprising.
"Most presidents have a formal trigger that says the honeymoon's over. That was [Sen. James] Jeffords switching [to independent affiliation]," says Larry Sabato, professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
"Now the whole world has changed, and now his compatriots feel free to disagree with him," he adds.
Party discipline is becoming more difficult to achieve for a number of reasons - most of them developing in just the past few weeks.
First, with Democrats now controlling the Senate, Mr. Bush is beginning to face issues and bills - such as the patients' bill of rights now under consideration in the Senate - that he would have preferred to keep buried as long as possible.
His tax-cut plan, which passed, and his education bill, which is poised to do so, were relative "gimmies" compared with what's coming now, Mr. Sabato says.
How polls fit in the equation
Proposals expected to emerge in the coming weeks, such as providing wide-ranging prescription-drug benefits for Medicare recipients and increasing the minimum wage, have wide public support, according to polls. That point is not lost on House Republicans, who are eager to hold their majority in the 2002 midterm elections. In the Senate, too, 20 of the 34 seats up for reelection in 2002 are held by Republicans.
Second, polls show some falling numbers for the president in the past month. Such readings traditionally mean congressional Republicans feel freer to strike out on their own, even if it means going against the president, says David Rohde, a political science professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
"When the president's party begins to question whether sticking with the president is in the best interest of their own survival, they usually go their own way," Mr. Rohde says.
An early test of how the president will respond to his new world will be the patients' bill of rights. He has threatened to veto legislation that is too lenient on allowing lawsuits, but will likely end up with a bill that allows suits of some sort.
If Bush vetoes the legislation, he stalls a bill that, according to surveys, a large number of Americans favor. A veto also presents tonal problems for Bush, Sabato says. Bush campaigned under the promise of bringing a new tone to Washington, and vetoing a lot of legislation "is going to sound like the old tone."
On the other hand, if Bush signs such a bill and other compromise measures, he risks angering conservatives. Some are already signaling their concern over his actions. In its July 9 edition, the conservative National Review calls on Bush to veto certain legislation in order to preserve the conservative base.
Of course, a less-than-perfect relationship between the president and congressional Republicans is nothing new. Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, faced similar problems for six years of his eight-year term. His solution, which became his trademark, was to triangulate between what he claimed to be liberal and conservative extremes in Congress. Mr. Clinton proved so adept at the strategy that he turned his greatest opponent, Newt Gingrich, into an unsuspecting ally by using him as a comparison point.
Different dynamics for Bush
If Bush is to try triangulating, however, the task may be tougher, Sabato says. Neither Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) nor House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) is the type of man to stir passions, he says. What's more, Sabato says, Bush has befriended one his best candidates for his own Gingrich, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy (D).
In the end, the new reality in Congress may mean a more flexible White House. "Bush is at a crossroads," says Marshall Wittman, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute. "Get ready for what I call 'Gumby conservatism.' I mean they are going to be bending this way and that. There's not going to be any distinct pattern.... We've had a false honeymoon for five months. That's over."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor