GOP Hitting Limits of Aggressive Tactics

Times Staff Writer

The frenzied action on Capitol Hill this week captured in miniature the strengths and limitations of the often-combative political strategy that has guided President Bush and congressional Republicans.

Since taking office, Bush has placed the highest priority on unifying his party behind an agenda of bold conservative change, even at the price of provoking intense resistance from Democrats and sharply polarizing the electorate.

That strategy was evident this week in the high-stakes Senate showdowns over cuts in federal social programs, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and renewal of the Patriot Act. On each front, Republicans commanded high levels of party unity -- but found that wasn’t always enough to overcome almost united Democratic resistance.

The White House and GOP leadership fashioned bills that virtually guaranteed achingly close votes because they included provisions strongly opposed by most Democrats and some moderate Republicans.

In the past, that sort of brinksmanship has allowed Bush and the GOP to win big changes in policy with small legislative margins. That formula worked again this week when both chambers narrowly passed the budget-cutting legislation without a single Democratic vote.


Yet the same strategy produced two stinging defeats for the GOP when Senate Democrats, helped by a handful of Republicans, held together for filibusters that blocked the Arctic drilling and the long-term renewal of the Patriot Act. Sixty votes are needed to cut off a filibuster.

“What they are coming up against now is the limits of partisanship -- the limits of dividing the country so decisively,” presidential historian Robert Dallek said.

In other ways, the week underscored the magnitude of the GOP advantage in Washington.

Unified control of the executive and legislative branches has allowed Republicans to shift the terms of debate in their direction on almost every issue.

Democrats had to exert great effort to contest conservative priorities, and were unable to highlight any of their own.

In the budget debate, for instance, the question was how much to cut spending on Medicaid -- not whether to expand it, as many Democrats prefer, to cover more of the increasing number of Americans without health insurance.

“This is still the Republican era and they are still in total control of the choices,” Yale University political scientist Stephen Skowronek said. “What we’ve seen are the difficulties of concerted action on [the GOP] agenda, but you don’t see any alternative agenda.”

Yet Republicans remain stymied on many fronts by their inability to attract the defections among moderate Senate Democrats that the White House expected after Bush’s reelection last year. That problem largely doomed Bush’s top domestic priority this year: restructuring Social Security.

In the Senate’s three major votes this week, Republicans won support from four Democrats on Arctic drilling, two on the Patriot Act and none on the budget that ultimately required a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Dick Cheney to pass.

Many GOP strategists say they expect the party to use these votes against Democratic candidates next fall, particularly the filibuster against the Patriot Act. Despite public warnings to that effect from key GOP figures, the Democrats maintained their filibuster.

“There’s a recognition in the Democratic caucus that the only way we are going to compete ... is if we stick together,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

For the White House, this week’s mixed legislative results were a jarring bump after several weeks in which the president had regained some lost ground in public opinion.

After a series of reversals this year -- including the collapse of his Social Security plan, the faltering federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and the indictment of a top Cheney aide -- GOP strategists believe Bush has stabilized his position through speeches on Iraq and the election of a permanent government there this month.

Most recent polls have shown Bush’s job approval ratings climbing from all-time low percentages in the mid-30s to between 41 and 47. That’s still low compared with most reelected presidents at this point in their second term, but the increase has lifted the spirits of Republicans uneasy about the 2006 elections.

“We are still not out of the woods ... but the president has turned the corner,” said Warren Tompkins, a South Carolina GOP consultant.

Bush’s recovery has been accompanied by a marked change in his tone, particularly in his speeches on the war. Until recently, his dominant note has been resolve -- an insistence that progress is being made and an unyielding resistance to critics.

But in his latest addresses, particularly his nationally televised speech Sunday night, Bush has been more conciliatory. He conceded missteps in training Iraqi troops and rebuilding the country, acknowledged that many Americans opposed his decisions, and agreed with critics that the war had been “more difficult than we expected.”

Mark McKinnon, principal media advisor for both of Bush’s presidential campaigns, said that the signs of progress in Iraq -- particularly the recent election -- had provided the president more leeway to acknowledge the challenges.

“The most recent elections, for most Americans, suggest a light at the end of the tunnel,” McKinnon said. “And at that time the president felt it was appropriate to evolve his message and talk about some of the difficulties we’ve had to encounter.”

Bush has shown signs of adjusting his tactics in other ways too.

He has brought in congressional Democrats for meetings on the war. White House aides also have consulted more widely than in the past with GOP legislators on the party’s 2006 agenda.

Yet for all his tactical shifts, Bush also has clearly signaled that he isn’t contemplating a major change of direction -- either in substance or in his style of leadership.

Though acknowledging missteps on Iraq, he has not endorsed any significant shift in policy there; instead, he has condemned calls from a growing number of Democrats to start the withdrawal of American troops.

Bush also has continued to assert an aggressive vision of unilateral presidential power. Faced with criticism from many Democrats and some Republicans over revelations that he authorized the National Security Agency to conduct domestic eavesdropping without warrants, Bush has defended the program in part by declaring that he has inherent authority as commander in chief to take steps he considers necessary against terrorists.

And, as this week’s congressional struggles demonstrate, the White House remains comfortable with a legislative strategy that accepts -- and at times appears to invite -- sharp partisan division.

Democrats proved themselves equally willing to trade blows with the GOP, even on legislation that many had believed Democrats would be afraid to filibuster, such as the Patriot Act and the military spending bill to which the GOP had attached the Arctic drilling proposal.

In all these ways, December’s confrontations suggest the two sides remain committed to strategies that promise more nailbiting congressional votes, more party-line confrontations and continued polarization in the polls.