Bush, Democrats Come Out Slugging at Opening Bell

Times Staff Writer

Just one week into the new session of Congress, President Bush already has made his mark on Capitol Hill with a determination -- some would say hubris -- that sets a combative tone for the year to come.

He unveiled a sweeping tax cut plan that made no concessions to Democratic sensibilities. He brashly renominated for the federal bench a controversial conservative judge whom Democrats rejected last year. And he practically dictated the first two bills to come before Congress: an extension of unemployment benefits and a big domestic spending bill that adheres to his own tight budget.

For their part, Democrats pushed back with gusto. They allowed no honeymoon for rookie Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), immediately throwing up pesky roadblocks before allowing passage of the unemployment bill. And a combative opposition strategy seemed assured with the decision of Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a canny and experienced tactician, to remain as Senate Democratic leader rather than run for president.

It added up to an in-your-face opening week in Congress that raised questions about whether the parties can build enough trust to address other major issues such as welfare reform and providing a prescription drug benefit through Medicare.

"On the big questions of the day, it bodes badly for bipartisan action," said Will Marshall, head of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic research organization.

Bush's influence in Congress may be on display again this week, when the Senate is expected to take up a budget bill written to squeeze under the spending ceiling Bush wants, despite resistance from members of both parties.

The bill is needed to set spending for domestic programs for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 -- a job left unfinished by the last Congress. GOP leaders of the House and Senate appropriation committees had wanted to spend more than Bush. But under pressure, Republican negotiators relented and last week prepared a bill for Senate action that accords with Bush's bottom line.

The process of writing that bill illustrates a potential snag to Bush's aggressive approach to Congress. Even Republicans, who are usually content to follow Bush's lead, want to exercise their own prerogatives -- especially the power of the purse, so they can channel money to their home states.

While leaders of the appropriation committees agreed to Bush's bottom line, they bridled at administration efforts to dictate the allocation of all the money. So far, a senior Republican committee aide said, lawmakers are loath to give up spending for their local water and highway projects to fund a program such as AmeriCorps, the volunteer service program that is an administration priority.

"We're going to be sure we take care of members in the area of projects," the aide said. "We told the administration: You're getting your low bottom-line number. But don't come in and say: 'My way or the highway [on the details].' They tried that and members are not reacting too well."

Still, last week's quick action on a bill to extend unemployment insurance was a testament to Bush's ability to move Congress. The issue languished last year for weeks and died with Republicans at odds among themselves on whether to extend a temporary program of additional unemployment benefits, which then expired Dec. 28. Republicans made it the first order of business last week, not because they had experienced a Christmas week conversion, Republican strategists acknowledged, but because Bush told them to.

On the very first day of the 108th Congress, Bush unleashed two bolts simultaneously that set the agenda and the tone for this session. His $674-billion economic growth initiative was far more ambitious and costly than Republicans had expected, and included a key element -- the elimination of taxes on dividends -- that had not been a prominent part of the GOP agenda.

Bush also surprised many by resubmitting the nomination of U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. of Mississippi to be a federal appeals court judge. Pickering was rejected last year by the Senate Judiciary Committee, then controlled by Democrats, largely because liberals saw him as insufficiently committed to civil rights.

Both moves demonstrated Bush's willingness to act boldly, a trait that still confounds Democrats and many political analysts.

"One of the most surprising features of this guy is his willingness to take a risk. That's another way to say overreaching," said Charles Jones, emeritus professor of government at the University of Wisconsin. "He will use his position -- the bully pulpit -- to get something."

The Pickering nomination is risky because it has revived Democratic charges that Republicans are not sensitive to civil rights issues -- a portrait of the GOP that Bush has worked hard to counter. The issue is especially sensitive after the resignation of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) as majority leader because of comments he made that were viewed by some as sympathetic to racial segregation.

Many Democrats assumed Bush would not renominate Pickering, a Lott ally, as a result of the controversy. But one Senate source close to the administration said the White House concluded that it would pay a greater price by not nominating him and suffering criticism from its conservative political base.

What's more, one aide to a senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee said, Pickering could serve a tactical purpose for Bush by drawing most of the left's political fire, making it easier for other conservative jurists to win confirmation.

Some Democrats have already threatened to filibuster the Pickering nomination. That's in keeping with the feisty tone they set on the first day, when they apparently reneged on an agreement with Frist to let the unemployment bill sail through with little debate. To the obvious irritation of Frist, Democrats initially blocked passage of the bill because they said it left out too many workers. Although they eventually relented, Democrats sent a clear message to Frist that they would not be taken for granted.

"Democrats are slowly waking up to assume their responsibility as the opposition party," said Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. "They are close to a scorched-earth opposition."

Bush, for his part, sent a clear message to Democrats and Republicans alike with his surprisingly expansive proposal for cutting taxes to stimulate economic growth: He is not about to compromise before he has to.

Enhancing the plan's effect was that much of it was kept secret until Bush announced it Tuesday.

But that very element of surprise may prove a drawback in efforts to rally support among the proud barons of Congress, who like nothing better than to be consulted.

Instead, many Republicans were caught off guard by the plan's magnitude and details. For example, many expected it would include significant aid to financially troubled states and an expansion of tax breaks to companies that invest in capital equipment, which it did not. And most lawmakers were expecting the package would cost about $300 billion; anti-deficit Republicans were aghast at the final price tag of almost $700 billion.

Democratic critics warned that Bush was overreaching. But a senior Senate Republican aide said the approach was a time-tested legislative strategy of Bush political advisor Karl Rove that has worked for Bush.

"This is classic Rove: They like to stun the opposition," said the aide. "Start off with a huge enchilada, then compromise from there."

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