Bush’s Agenda on Slow Track

Times Staff Writer

After three years of getting most of the major legislation he wanted through a cooperative Congress, President Bush is coming up almost empty-handed this year as he heads into the homestretch of his reelection campaign.

Capitol Hill has turned into a sinkhole for the unfinished business on Bush’s agenda, which includes bills to spur domestic energy production, crack down on lawsuits, extend his 2001 tax cuts and liberalize immigration rules.

Bush and his GOP allies blame the Democrats for the stalemate, as the minority party has become more united and stubborn in its opposition to White House initiatives.

But many issues, such as highway funding and additional tax cuts, have languished not just because of Democratic obstruction but also because of divisions among Republicans -- between the House and Senate, moderates and conservatives, and Bush and congressional leaders.


Last week’s Senate debate on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was symptomatic of the many forces conspiring to turn this year into a legislative bust for the White House. Despite Bush’s strong push for the amendment -- a crowd pleaser for his party’s conservative wing -- it met with resounding defeat in the face of solid Democratic opposition and a divided Republican Party.

Even in the House, where Republicans are generally more disciplined in following Bush, his agenda is facing challenges. The House this month nearly passed a measure to scale back Bush’s signature anti-terrorism law, the Patriot Act. Only an intensive, 11th-hour round of arm-twisting by GOP leaders spared Bush an embarrassing defeat.

Some Republicans argue that the legislative stalemate will not hurt Bush politically, because Congress already has produced a broad array of major legislation since 2000: big tax cuts, a Medicare prescription drug subsidy, and tools for waging war and combating terrorism.

“Congress has already accomplished so much in three years,” said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman. “The president came to Washington wanting to do some big things, and he’s accomplished some big things. That doesn’t mean he wants to let his foot off the gas.”

But some Republicans worry that an anemic record this year will be a political problem, because one of their prime arguments for reelecting Bush and GOP majorities in Congress is that a government dominated by one party can get more done than a divided government.

“You can’t just point your finger and call Democrats obstructionist,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). “If you have a job to do, you have to do it. People aren’t interested in how many storms you encounter at sea. They want to know when you pull into port.”

Some argue that the stalemate is practically inevitable in an election year, because both parties have more incentive to define their differences than to strike legislative compromises. But election pressures do not always produce that result: Before the 1996 elections, Congress and the White House responded to voter impatience with Washington gridlock and produced several major bipartisan laws, such as a welfare overhaul and a minimum wage increase.

Part of the reason Congress has done so little this year, some analysts say, is that Bush has not been asking for much, or has not been pressing hard enough for what he has asked for.

“The administration has not been as aggressive at pushing its agenda as it was a year ago,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

By contrast, the administration’s heavy lobbying in 2001 led to approval of Bush’s first big tax cut and his education reform initiative, both with significant support from Democrats. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush became the dominant force as bipartisan majorities in Congress passed the Patriot Act, authorization for the war in Afghanistan, an airport security law and other anti-terrorism measures.

The 2002 elections gave Bush more leverage in Congress after his campaigning helped Republicans win control of the Senate. Republicans’ gratitude reinforced their willingness to promote his agenda. That helped Bush overcome initial skepticism about the cornerstone of his 2003 proposal to stimulate the economy, a plan to cut taxes on dividend income.

For now, Bush can still count on getting a few important but uncontroversial items through Congress in the next few months, including funding for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, a free trade agreement with Australia and a bill to temporarily extend three popular tax breaks that are about to expire.

But a senior administration official acknowledged that the White House was taking a “minimalist approach” to its legislative ambitions. He said that was in response to Senate Democrats’ confrontational stance this year.

“The place is more partisan than it’s ever been before,” the official said. “They are pushing the envelope.”

Democrats have played an especially tough game of hardball. They have blocked several judicial nominations from coming to a vote, even though a majority would vote to confirm some of them. They have delayed conference committees needed to draft final versions of legislation. And to spotlight their agenda, they have threatened to pepper every major bill with unrelated amendments, such as measures that would increase the minimum wage and allow importation of cheaper prescription drugs.

The threat of an amendment barrage recently helped kill legislation that had been seen as Bush’s only hope of making progress on curbing certain lawsuits. The bill to limit class-action suits had a bipartisan majority behind it, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) pulled the measure rather than allow Democratic amendments on minimum wage, global warming and other issues.

But it was not just Democratic amendments he was trying to block: Frist also wanted to avoid a vote on a bipartisan amendment to help immigrant farmworkers, which bitterly split the GOP. Bush’s own proposal to liberalize immigration standards has gone nowhere in Congress, in large part because many conservative Republicans were critical of the idea.

Bush and congressional Republicans have spent months tussling over a highway bill that enjoys broad bipartisan support. Bush has threatened to veto the bill if it costs more than $256 billion over six years. House and Senate Republicans have wanted to funnel far more than that into road and transit projects.

Although those home-state benefits are particularly important to Republican lawmakers in an election year, Bush has a competing political interest in shoring up his bona fides as a fiscal conservative. He has been criticized by many in his party’s right wing for allowing federal spending and the deficit to grow dramatically.

The Republicans’ budget plan for the year has essentially died because of an intra-party dispute over future tax cuts. A group of deficit-conscious Republican senators has insisted on new deficit reduction rules that would make it harder for Congress to permanently extend Bush’s tax cuts, which expire in stages between now and 2011.

The lack of a budget blueprint is a political embarrassment for the GOP, even though Congress can still pass the spending bills needed to run the government. Many House Republicans are infuriated by the Senate GOP mavericks -- and by the White House for not doing more to crack down on the dissenters.

“I know what it’s like to be a team player,” said a House Republican leader who asked not to be named. “This administration kowtows to the Senate despite their lack of results.”

Bush’s energy bill has languished ever since the Senate late last year failed to cut off a filibuster. Republicans blamed Democrats for killing the bill, but one of the core obstacles to final passage was an issue that crossed party lines: a provision to limit the liability of producers of a gasoline additive blamed for contaminating water supplies.

Senate GOP leaders and White House officials were willing to drop the provision to break the logjam, but House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has adamantly refused.

Some Republicans think the White House, faced with stiff opposition from Senate Democrats, has thrown in the towel on major legislation for this year. But the House vote on the Patriot Act showed that when the White House applies its muscle, it can prevail.

A coalition of Democrats and conservative Republicans wanted to limit the Patriot Act by barring the Justice Department from searching library and bookstore records to investigate individuals’ reading habits. They moved to attach their measure to a broader spending bill. In response, the White House this month issued a statement threatening to veto the entire spending bill if the amendment was adopted.

The vote to reject the amendment was hard-won, as GOP leaders had to extend the time for the roll call by more than 20 minutes to bring Republican dissidents in line.

Although the administration eventually prevailed, the fight showed how unlikely it was that the current Congress would enact a key part of Bush’s anti-terrorism agenda by expanding the reach of the Patriot Act.

That points to the challenge that Bush would face in Congress if he won reelection. Bush has so far done little to flesh out a new agenda for a second term beyond continuing and building on existing policies. But what is left of his first-term agenda will probably remain stalled unless the makeup of Congress changes significantly.

“We would like Congress to do more,” said Duffy at the White House. “But we may have to wait for an election to change those sorts of prospects.”