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Off to a Running Start, How Far Can GOP Go?

Times Staff Writer

Less than three months after starting their new terms, President Bush and GOP leaders have scored a remarkable series of legislative victories, many involving measures that Republicans had been trying to move through Congress for years.

Even while spending a huge amount of time and political capital to keep his Social Security plan alive, Bush and congressional leaders have managed to whisk through business-backed legislation to crack down on class-action lawsuits and consumer bankruptcy filings. The Senate has cleared the way for Bush’s plan to expand oil and gas drilling in Alaska. Antiabortion forces have won their first test of strength in the Senate.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 23, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 23, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Congressional Republicans -- An article in Sunday’s Section A about the legislative successes scored by President Bush and Republicans in Congress said the House of Representatives, with 232 GOP members, had more Republicans than at any time since 1931. In fact, 246 Republicans were elected to the House in 1946.

And even though the president’s effort to overhaul Social Security has gotten off to a halting start, the fact that this once-verboten topic has been thrust to the forefront is a measure of how much the winners of the 2004 elections have redirected the nation’s public policy priorities.

As Congress adjourns for a two-week recess with all that under its belt, Republican lawmakers are at a turning point as they assess the effects of their enhanced power.

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The open question is whether their achievements so far mark just the start of what the GOP majority can achieve -- or whether their efforts will soon run out of steam. Still on the Republican agenda are more contentious issues, including changes to medical malpractice suit laws and tax laws and, if Bush can persuade lawmakers to consider it, a major and divisive change to Social Security.

“The plate tectonics are being shaped for some really big fights -- really big fights on Social Security, judges, the budget,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). “I don’t think it’s at all obvious how these things are going to work their way out.”

Republicans have been under particularly heavy pressure to act quickly, because they fear the Senate may soon become paralyzed by a partisan standoff over judicial nominees.

“We have to get some accomplishments,” said Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), chairwoman of the House Republican Conference. “The Senate knows it has to produce early because of the huge potential that it will all close down.”

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Republicans’ heady mood and high hopes have been in evidence since the new Congress was sworn in Jan. 4. They had gained four seats in the Senate and held more House seats than they had since 1931.

“ ‘Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood,’ ” House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said in his opening speech, quoting Daniel Burnham, a Chicago architect who helped design the early skyscrapers. “In this Congress, big plans will stir men’s blood.”

In that can-do spirit, Bush and his emboldened party wasted no time finding an opportunity for quick victory -- on long-stalled legislation to make it harder to file class actions. That was a cornerstone of Bush’s campaign promise to rein in lawsuits he considered frivolous. The 2004 elections added enough Republicans to all but guarantee the bill’s passage.

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The very day the electoral votes were counted that formally gave Bush his second term, the president brought about a dozen House and Senate backers of the class-action bill to the Cabinet room and urged them to keep the bill clean of amendments that might slow its progress, according to a participant in the meeting.

Sitting around the Cabinet table were Republicans such as Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who had labored for years to get the legislation through Congress and now saw that its time had finally come. The serious mood was disrupted when Goodlatte’s cellphone erupted into its marching-music ring, to Bush’s irritation.

But Goodlatte had a comeback: “Mr. President, that’s marching music to celebrate your impending inauguration.”

Less than two months later, Goodlatte stood beaming behind Bush as he signed the class-action bill into law.

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But in his ambition to recast Social Security, Bush knew even before he was sworn in to a second term that he faced resistance within his own party, and he moved early to quell dissent.

For example, as he flew to Collinsville, Ill., in January, Bush gave a precious seat on Air Force One to Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a senior Republican who had publicly questioned Bush’s emerging plan to overhaul Social Security.

During the flight, presidential advisor Karl Rove let LaHood know that his dissenting views had not gone unnoticed.

“We’ve been reading your comments,” Rove said, according to LaHood. “The president would like you to keep your powder dry and hold your fire until you’ve seen details.”

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Rove also gave Senate Republicans an early pitch for Bush’s plan to allow younger workers to divert some of their payroll taxes into personal investment accounts.

The master strategist argued that the politics of Social Security were no longer as perilous for the GOP as they once had been. But White House aides quickly learned how much work they still had to do to persuade fellow Republicans, not just Democrats and the public at large.

Not long after Rove’s appeal, Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) told reporters he believed it would be almost impossible politically to do what Bush was proposing. That downbeat assessment was especially troublesome for Bush’s plan because it came from the chairman of a subcommittee that handles Social Security.

In short order, McCrery said, his phone rang.

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“What did you really say?” a White House aide asked him. McCrery explained he was quoted out of context, but he pointed out that the administration had never fully explained to him the rationale for diverting payroll taxes for personal accounts.

The White House dispatched two senior officials -- economic advisors Allan B. Hubbard and Charles P. Blahous -- to McCrery’s office to turn him around. After a one-hour meeting he was on board, but politically anxious.

“Regardless of the sound policy rationale, it’s still going to be a very tough pull,” McCrery said he told them.

The coming weeks bore him out. Polls showed support for Bush’s personal-account plan dropping in the weeks after he started campaigning for it. Some GOP leaders began to suggest that they might not be able to pass the proposal this year.

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But even as clouds gathered over Bush’s Social Security initiative, Republicans found ways to make headway on other fronts.

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When Senate Republicans held a weekly strategy meeting early this month, they were joined by a surprising guest: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a rare interloper from the other chamber at the Senate’s clubby closed-door lunches.

DeLay (R-Texas) was allotted two minutes to give a rundown of what House Republicans were doing -- and what they hoped the Senate would do with a bill to impose new limits on consumer bankruptcy filings. DeLay urged the senators to follow the script that had expedited the class-action bill: Keep it clean of amendments and speed it along to the House.

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DeLay’s presence was just the most visible evidence of a concerted effort by House and Senate Republican leaders to increase cooperation between the often-rivalrous chambers. They aimed to avoid the kinds of spats that had flared in the last Congress, slowing major legislation such as Bush’s tax cuts and the budget.

With DeLay’s visit, Republicans began swapping emissaries across the Capitol. The next week, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) traveled to the basement of the building for a meeting of the House Republican Conference. One night, top House and Senate GOP leaders had a rare supper together, in the elegant speaker’s dining room in the Capitol.

The coordination paid off on the bankruptcy bill, which had been stuck short of passage for nearly a decade. The Senate heeded DeLay’s advice and turned back controversial amendments, clearing the way for quick action by the House after the spring recess.

The turning point came when the Senate rejected an amendment that had derailed the entire measure in the past -- an amendment that would have prevented abortion protesters from avoiding court fines by declaring bankruptcy.

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The vote was seen as the new Congress’ first test of strength for the antiabortion movement, which strongly opposed the amendment. Many Republicans were relieved to get the bill over the finish line

“This bill obviously has a marathoner’s mentality,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who began pushing such legislation in 1994. “It’s been running a long time.”

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As attention turned to the annual budget, long-standing divisions among Republicans broke open when dissenters threatened to derail the party’s tax and spending blueprint for the second year in a row.

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In the House, fiscal conservatives had been grousing for months that their party had lost its commitment to controlling the cost of government. The Republican Study Committee, an influential group of about 100 House conservatives, pushed after the 2004 elections for their party to adopt new rules to help constrain spending. But GOP leaders balked.

Restiveness in conservative ranks was compounded when some Republicans -- including Bush -- said they were open to discussing tax increases as part of the overhaul of Social Security. To warm up relations, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) suggested that Vice President Dick Cheney reach out to the Republican Study Committee. More than 30 of them accepted Cheney’s invitation to a reception at his home.

“I’ve often thought that people at the White House look at the weekly meeting of the RSC as like a ‘Star Trek’ convention,” Pence told Cheney as his colleagues milled around the first floor of the vice president’s residence. “This is the RSC.”

But the schmoozing did not keep conservatives from challenging House leaders on the annual budget. Rebel conservatives threatened to vote against the measure if it did not include strict new rules for enforcing its spending ceilings, which are routinely violated.

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“We want a budget, not a mirage,” said Pence. “This is a very important moment in the life of the Republican majority.”

Eventually, House leaders struck a compromise with conservatives to set new spending limits in their budget.

But Senate leaders failed to derail a bipartisan effort to block spending cuts in Medicaid sought by Bush. House Republicans, who passed a much more stringent budget, said that meant the effort to reconcile the two budgets after spring recess could test the new rapprochement between House and Senate Republicans.

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Few Republicans have a more vivid sense of what a difference the November elections have made than Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). He fought for 25 years to allow oil and gas drilling in his state’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Congress in 1995 voted to allow it, but President Clinton vetoed the bill. Even with Bush on Stevens’ side for the last four years, the initiative was blocked by Democratic-led filibusters, which required a vote of 60 senators to break them.

Bolstered by the election of more pro-drilling Senate Republicans in 2004, GOP leaders took a new tack: They arranged for the drilling proposal to be attached to a budget measure that could be approved by a simple majority of 51 votes.

Heading into a showdown vote on that strategy last week, Stevens was sporting an “Incredible Hulk” necktie that he wears for big legislative battles. Lobbying had been intense. Celebrities such as actor Robert Redford had been involved. Until the very day of the vote, headcounters on both sides were still wary of predicting how a Democratic effort to block the drilling maneuver would fare.

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In the end, the drilling proposal survived, 51 to 49. A delighted Stevens told reporters he was “trying to smile again,” after having battled for nearly a quarter-century.

What made the difference this time?

“My friend, it’s called an election. We won the election.”


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