During the recent House debate over whether the federal government should pay for abortions for impoverished victims of rape and incest, the partisan diatribes against President Bush were startlingly vitriolic.
"This President cannot stop (Panamanian strongman Manuel A.) Noriega. He cannot decide what to do to promote the rollback of communism in Poland or Hungary," Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.) declared. "But, boy, can he show poor women who's boss . . . . What a leader!"
So shrill were the attacks that the presiding officer felt compelled to remind members that House rules forbid impugning the integrity of the President.
It was the first clear indication that the cozy relationship Bush had with Congress in the early months of his presidency has rapidly deteriorated. "There's no question that the honeymoon is over," Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) said.
Now, Bush and Congress are pointing a finger at each other for virtually every unresolved problem facing the nation.
As recently as Tuesday, for example, Bush declared: "The American people know why this deficit isn't down. It isn't down because they see, 4 to 1, that the Congress is to blame."
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) shot back that, although everyone shares the blame, "the principal responsibility is the President's."
Perhaps such a falling out was inevitable between a Republican President and a predominantly Democratic Congress. But the end of Bush's honeymoon with Congress is remarkable not only because it has come so swiftly but also because the President has tried so hard to be friends with members of the legislative body in which he once served.
Even former President Ronald Reagan, whose relations with Congress had reached a low point by the time he left office last January, was able to generate more good will on Capitol Hill than Bush can count on as he nears the end of his crucial first year in the White House.
The issues currently dividing the President and Congress are many and varied--including abortion, economic aid for Poland and Hungary, deficit reduction and U.S. policy toward Noriega's continued rule in Panama.
But the central issue on which Bush's relationship with Congress foundered was his now-stalled proposal to cut the capital gains tax rate, a plan that Democrats in Congress viewed as a betrayal of the commitment both parties made to tax reform in 1986.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) characterized a capital gains proposal as a "Holy Grail" for which the President chose to sacrifice his entire relationship with Congress. In Mitchell's view, the rancor engendered by the lengthy capital gains fight has spilled over into congressional dealings with the White House on most other issues.
"It's obviously very difficult to conduct business in a cooperative manner in this atmosphere," Mitchell said recently.
Just 10 months ago, Bush stood on the steps of the Capitol for his inauguration and pledged to forge a new spirit of cooperation with Congress. "The American people . . . did not send us here to bicker," Bush declared.
As a former member of the House and the presiding officer of the Senate during his eight years as vice president, Bush knew better than most of his predecessors how easily members of Congress can sometimes be swayed by a little personal attention from the President.
To that end, he has frequently invited members of Congress to the White House, called them on the telephone for personal chats and even dined regularly in the House dining room with old friends.
As a result, even Bush's most persistent critics, including Mitchell, concede that his courtesy and consideration for members of Congress have made him personally more popular on Capitol Hill than many of his predecessors. "I like the President personally," Mitchell noted.
For a while, Bush's strategy for courting Congress appeared to be working beautifully. Until just recently, in fact, Democrats were complaining that their leaders had been mesmerized by the President's congenial style. It was not until those complaints reached a fever pitch that Mitchell, Foley and other Democratic leaders began to criticize the President in a way that satisfied most rank-and-file Democrats.
Gibes Aimed at Bush
Now, Mitchell makes almost daily speeches attacking some aspect of the President's policy. And Foley gets in an occasional gibe at the President, although he usually calls on Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) to issue the more partisan statements.
However, Democrats contend that the deteriorating climate springs not from their return to partisanship but from Bush's failure to keep the pledge of cooperation that he made to them last January. Whenever the two parties disagree, they say, the President has insisted on his own proposals without showing a willingness to compromise.
"There is a feeling that dealing with George Bush is a one-way street," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "You help him when he needs help; he doesn't help you when you need help."
Democrats see Bush's latest vow to "veto and exhort" Congress on the many issues on which they disagree as further evidence that the President and his top aides do not truly understand how to achieve bipartisan compromise.
"He thinks that, as long as he's personable and communicates with us, that's enough," Matsui said. "But he's learning that some of us care about policy, too."
Aides Share Blame
Although Bush is held personally responsible by congressional Democrats for these mistakes, some of the blame falls to White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and Budget Director Richard G. Darman, who are regarded by both Democrats and Republicans as too pushy with members of Congress.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) even quipped that Sununu, the former governor of New Hampshire, sometimes must be reminded that dealing with Congress "is not quite like dealing with the (New Hampshire) Legislature."
In large part, the Democrats' harsh statements represent an effort to capitalize politically on what they see as weaknesses in the President's overall popularity. Unlike Reagan, who always had a strong constituency willing to defend him no matter what he did, Bush is seen by Democrats as a President whose base is more fragile.
"Nobody has any fear about criticizing Bush," one House Democrat confessed. "We all realize that his support is very broad, but not very deep."
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) contends that the attacks on Bush represent a well-coordinated effort by the Democrats to undermine confidence in his leadership. Members of Dole's staff recently studied newspaper stories referring to the President during a recent 10-day period and found 178 instances in which Democrats used the identical word--"timid"--to describe Bush.
Democrats contend that "timid" is the only word for Bush's failure to assist in a recent coup attempt against Noriega. And they were angered by efforts on the part of some White House aides to blame Congress for Bush's hesitancy.
Likewise, Democrats see Bush's unbending stand against federally funded abortions for victims of rape and incest as an issue on which he is vulnerable. Polls show that only a small minority of voters share his opposition to abortions under those circumstances.
But the tension between Bush and the Democrats goes deeper than political posturing. Some Democrats such as Mitchell and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) have been genuinely angered by the President's heavy-handedness in pushing legislation strongly opposed by the Democratic leadership in Congress.
Sources said that Rostenkowski, who took pride earlier this year in his close friendship with the President, was personally wounded by Bush's decision to force the capital gains tax cut through his committee over his strong objections.
Likewise, Mitchell was frustrated by Bush's early refusal to drop the House-passed capital gains tax reduction after Democrats had clearly succeeded in outmaneuvering him in the Senate.
Mitchell's harshest speech--the one in which he accused Bush of making a capital gains tax cut his "Holy Grail"--came in response to a statement by White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater accusing Democrats of subverting Senate rules to defeat the Bush proposal. The statement seemed perfectly worded to outrage Mitchell, who prides himself on being scrupulously fair in protecting the rights of the Republican minority under Senate rules.
Tax Cut Called Gimmick
Democratic leaders viewed the President's proposed capital gains tax cut not only as an abandonment of the commitment to tax reform but also as a phony, short-term deficit reduction gimmick that would provide a bonanza for wealthy Americans and add to the deficit in future years.
Matsui, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said that Bush's decision last week to abandon the fight for a capital gains tax cut might help to "heal the wounds" that it caused, but he added that relations between the President and Democratic leaders would never be as friendly again.
Similarly, Congress and Bush have been at odds in the last few months over how much economic assistance to provide to Poland and Hungary in response to the democratic reforms under way in those countries. Bush originally proposed $100 million for Poland and $25 million for Hungary, but he was forced to increase his request substantially when it was portrayed by Democrats as too timid.
Bush further angered Democrats by announcing recently that he was thinking of asserting a presidential right to exercise a line-item veto on spending bills passed by Congress. Such a move surely would precipitate a constitutional clash between the President and Congress, which jealously regards the power of the purse as its own.
"For President Bush to assert the line-item veto power on his own would be to flout the Constitution and the unbroken practice of every President before him," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said.
In the opinion of many Democrats, Bush has run into trouble with Congress primarily because he refuses to embrace any compromise that might jeopardize his popularity. Democrats note that the President has refused to take a stand on the proposed repeal of the highly unpopular surtax that finances Medicare's new catastrophic health insurance program.
"They are acting like the election is next year," declared Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), himself a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.