For Bush, GOP Leaders, Some Policy Paths Diverge

Times Staff Writer

When the Republican high command gathered for a private dinner at a resort by the Chesapeake Bay last month, party leaders talked about how to use their newly enhanced political muscle to begin carrying out a sweeping conservative agenda when Congress reconvenes this week.

White House officials had made it plain that President Bush wanted them to set aside other big issues and promote his promised overhaul of Social Security. But some in the room had a different plan.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas objected to postponing another campaign promise -- making big changes to the tax code -- that seemed to DeLay a clearer political winner.


“He was more nervous about going ahead on Social Security,” said one person who attended the dinner. And DeLay said he was “annoyed” that Bush wanted to set up a study commission on taxes, according to another participant, because “he saw it as a delaying mechanism.”

The exchange has not deterred Bush from opening the Social Security debate -- and setting up a tax commission.

But the dinner meeting offers a window on a political dynamic taking shape as Bush begins his second term: Some of his most powerful lieutenants in the congressional leadership have agendas of their own for the next two years, and they may not always coincide with Bush’s.

That is in part because key GOP leaders are at crucial points in their own careers, and they will be viewing the next two years through the prism of their own ambitions and legacies.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) plans to retire from Congress in 2006 and is considering a run for president in 2008. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is thought to be near the end of his career in Congress. DeLay is dogged by the possibility of an indictment in Texas related to political fundraising, but he is still in position to succeed Hastert as speaker. And Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), who oversees the Ways and Means Committee, has only two more years to serve in that powerful position before term-limit rules end his tenure as chairman.

These leaders remain committed to Bush’s agenda and have strong incentives to follow the White House’s lead: Bush is highly popular among the GOP base and could raise vast sums for the 2006 election.


But with Bush working toward a long-term legacy and Republicans in Congress anticipating the next election, the party’s House and Senate leaders show some desire to reorder the Bush agenda according to their own priorities and political interests.

Hastert, in his opening speech to the new Congress, said his top priority would be rewriting immigration law, an important issue to the committee chairmen who form his power base in the House. Ways and Means Chairman Thomas, in a speech last week, insisted that lawmakers consider a far broader range of modifications to Social Security than Bush has so far proposed.

Frist is likely to push harder than the Bush administration for initiatives in healthcare, his signature policy and one that could help build a distinctive profile for a presidential bid. DeLay’s push for a tax overhaul could help him retain the loyalty of GOP allies whom he would need to fight possible legal charges or to ascend to the speaker’s chair.

Republicans in Congress “are not fractious, but we are independent and have different ideas,” said Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio, a GOP leader close to the White House. “There are different political calculations.”


Head coach of Bush’s team in Congress is Hastert, the well-liked leader of House Republicans. His role as broker is so valued at the White House that Bush, aware of rumors that Hastert was considering retirement after this term, personally asked him to run for reelection in 2006. And Vice President Dick Cheney complimented Hastert by asking him to administer his oath of office at last week’s inauguration, a rare honor for a House speaker.

Although Hastert has been a steady ally of the president, his first responsibility is to the House Republicans who made him speaker.


“I don’t think he right now defines success as strictly being the president’s guy,” said Mark Isakowitz, a Republican lobbyist who works with House leaders. “He will always protect his members first.”

That became clear in November when Hastert refused to bring to the House floor a bill that Bush was demanding: the overhaul of federal intelligence agencies. The bill had enough support to pass, but Hastert held it back until the White House made concessions to the Republicans who believed it undercut the Pentagon and those who wanted to add new immigration restrictions.

To get the deal passed, Hastert agreed to bring the immigration restrictions to a vote early this year. But that may move policy in a different direction than Bush has proposed, which is to make it easier for illegal immigrants to win temporary worker status. It could mean the year starts on a divisive issue that the White House would probably rather avoid.

“The White House is on a totally different wavelength than most House Republicans” on immigration, said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.).

Hastert also has to navigate the differences between his troops and Bush on Social Security. With House Republicans up for reelection in 2006 -- and Bush not on the ballot -- many lawmakers feel more vulnerable to the risks of changing the popular retirement program.

During Bush’s first term, Hastert told the White House bluntly that the House would not take up Social Security before the 2004 elections, a senior aide said. Now he’s willing to push the idea, but many others are still nervous.


“It’s fine for [Bush] to be bold on Social Security because he doesn’t have to run again,” said Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.). “But we have the specter of a very tough reelection.”

That is why Hastert has insisted that the White House mount an aggressive campaign to sell Bush’s idea, which includes allowing younger workers to divert tax dollars into personally controlled accounts, to a skeptical public before lawmakers vote on the issue.

Still, Hastert seems ready to swing for the fences as he heads into what could be the last innings of his career in Congress.

“ ‘Make no little plans,’ ” he said in his opening speech this year, quoting the architect who helped design Chicago. “ ‘They have no magic to stir men’s blood.’ In this Congress, big plans will stir men’s blood.”


Of all the top leaders in Congress, the one facing the toughest job -- and the man whose political interests most clearly coincide with Bush’s -- is Frist. As Senate majority leader, he has to move Bush’s agenda through the balkiest part of Congress, where Democrats have more sway than in the more-disciplined House.

Frist, a surgeon, has said he would step down as leader and retire from Congress in 2006; he is also said to be thinking about a presidential bid in 2008. That gives him three constituencies to serve: Senate Republicans, the White House and the party activists he would need to court to win the presidential nomination.


He has long-established ties with the White House. In the 2000 election, he was Senate liaison to the Bush campaign. In 2002, when Frist headed the GOP campaign committee, he worked closely with Bush advisor Karl Rove to make big Republican gains in the Senate. When Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was forced to step down as majority leader in late 2002, Frist was the White House favorite to succeed him.

He has been a loyal administration ally, but privately he has had his share of differences. Sources close to him said Frist was irritated by the administration’s handling of a highway bill of great importance to lawmakers that stalled last year amid White House objections to its cost. He was also reportedly displeased with the mixed messages the administration sent over last year’s intelligence bill.

Frist’s ambitions give him additional incentives to stick close to Bush: It would be a bright feather in his cap if he was able to deliver conservative judicial nominees and the major tax and Social Security initiatives backed by the party activists.

But Frist will also have an interest in establishing a profile that goes beyond being Bush’s spear-carrier. He is likely to do so in the area of healthcare, a long-time policy interest that returns the focus to his background as a heart surgeon. That persona would likely be central to any Frist presidential bid, GOP strategists say, given the limited success candidates have had basing campaigns on their Senate careers.

Just last week, Frist published a health-policy article in a place politicians rarely appear: the New England Journal of Medicine. And Frist often recalls how, on his first day as a senator, his father told him, “Always remember you’re a doctor.”


DeLay, the House majority leader, enters the new Bush term with his future clouded by the possibility of indictment by a Texas grand jury investigating improper political donations.


Whether he is forced into a legal battle or whether he may want to succeed Hastert as speaker some day, DeLay needs to hold the support of fellow House Republicans, his core constituency.

One reason he wanted to push harder and faster for an overhaul of the tax system -- including the potential abolition of the Internal Revenue Service -- is that he sees it as a more potent issue for the congressional wing of the party. Attacking taxes and the complexity of the code is red meat for the GOP base.

DeLay also disliked the idea of establishing a tax study commission, charged with making recommendations to the administration, because it would undercut the power of Congress to set policy. “With commissions you’re at the mercy of their findings,” said a DeLay aide.

What’s more, DeLay has a special stake in the tax debate because he is a strong proponent of one of the many leading options: replacing the income tax system with a national sales tax. It is an idea with special appeal in his home state. The major organization pushing for a sales tax, Americans for Fair Taxation, is based in Houston.


It is no surprise that Thomas, the House Ways and Means chairman, has his own views about how to handle Bush’s top domestic priorities. A strong-willed lawmaker who relishes his power to write tax law, Thomas has never seemed content in a role where someone else dictated the agenda. When Bush in 2003 proposed cutting taxes on dividends and made it the cornerstone of his economic policy, Thomas took the policy in a very different direction.

His independent streak reemerged last week when he laid out ideas even more ambitious and radical than Bush’s still-emerging Social Security plan. Thomas argued that creating personal accounts was not ambitious enough and called for the debate to sweep in a tax overhaul and changes in Medicare. He also warned that a debate limited to Bush’s private accounts would probably bog down in partisanship.


Thomas’ counterpart in the Senate, Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), has been much more reticent to state his views about the Social Security and tax plans that will come before his panel.

But Thomas is clearly shaping his legacy as he heads into his last two years as chairman. Said one Republican aide, “He views this Social Security vehicle as the last big train moving in his chairmanship, and wants to do a lot of other things.”