WASHINGTON—In the weeks since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have tried to avoid airing their differences and quickly forged agreements on a host of issues. But almost a month later, Congress has started to return to its usual fractious ways.
While congressional leaders have jointly supported the U.S. military action in Afghanistan that began Sunday, some predict that lawmakers in Congress will continue to openly disagree as they tackle the difficult issues resulting from the attacks, as well as their previous agenda.
"Issues come down to political philosophy of what people believe," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "That's what `little-d' democracy is all about. We're better off letting people speak their mind."
As Congress returns to work on Tuesday, its members are at loggerheads over how to make airports safer for travel. The House and the Senate are pursuing dramatically different versions of counterterrorism legislation that could give law enforcement officials broad investigative powers. House Republicans are pushing trade legislation that most Democrats abhor. And prescriptions to right the nation's economy have underscored longstanding philosophical differences between the parties.
"The initial response is to come together, then it goes back to normal," Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University said, describing the democratic form of government as an agreement to disagree.
The differences of opinion are not limited to those between Democrats and Republicans. Even within the parties, lawmakers are debating the substance of policies and how to approach the opposition.
House GOP feeling left out
One evening last week, seven House Republicans talked with President Bush and a few of his top aides on the Truman balcony of the White House.
The Texas GOP congressmen, including House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, told Bush they were feeling frustrated, left out. Administration officials were brokering deals with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and setting aside Republican concerns, they said.
The lawmakers told Bush the White House should consider a new negotiating strategy that starts with House Republicans rather than Senate Democrats.
"I think those days are behind us," said one participant, Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a close adviser to the president.
Portman said Bush agreed it was time to return to the regular legislative approach rather than the backroom deal making that excluded the rank and file.
Another participant described the president as sympathetic to their concerns.
"You have to be careful you don't extend this bipartisan effort too far down the domestic agenda," said one congressman, describing the conversation. "A bipartisan agenda in the sense of foreign policy and defense policy is easily defended. A bipartisan view of education and tax policy and energy and other policies is much more troublesome for us in the long term."
A House Republican leadership aide familiar with the discussion said many members of Congress have been annoyed that the administration was dictating to the very people who pressed Bush's legislative agenda over the past 10 months.
House Republicans were furious when Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta told them last week that the administration would support an airline security bill to federalize workers drafted by a Democrat, Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, and by Sens. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).
"We said, `We don't like that, we really don't like that, we think it's terrible policy,"' said one person present during the discussion with Mineta. "We said, `We want to be involved in the process and we don't want you coming in and telling us this is what it is because Tom Daschle wants it.'"
Democrats irked too
Republicans are not the only ones chafing.
Democrats were upset when Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt agreed to pass a $15 billion airline bailout package that included nothing for thousands of laid-off airline employees.
They have warned the administration against pushing divisive trade legislation, and bridled at Republican talk of cutting the capital gains tax rate on investments as part of an economic stimulus package.
Gephardt acknowledged that it is getting more difficult for lawmakers to put up a unified front.
"We are trying to do all of this as best we can in a bipartisan way," he said late last week. "That always gets harder and harder ... bipartisanship is abnormal. We all come here representing different people with different viewpoints, and a big part of our job is to express those viewpoints on the floor of the House."