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Bush boxes in his congressional foes

Times Staff Writer

Just over a year ago, a chastened President Bush acknowledged that his party had taken a “thumping” in the congressional elections, and he greeted the new Democratic majority at the weakest point of his presidency.

But since then, Democrats in Congress have taken a thumping of their own as Bush has curbed their budget demands, blocked a cherished children’s health initiative, stalled the drive to withdraw troops from Iraq and stymied all efforts to raise taxes.

Rather than turn tail for his last two years in the White House, Bush has used every remaining weapon in his depleted arsenal -- the veto, executive orders, the loyalty of Republicans in Congress -- to keep Democrats from getting their way. He has struck a combative pose, dashing hopes that he would be more accommodating in the wake of his party’s drubbing in the 2006 midterm voting.

Bush’s own second-term domestic agenda is a shambles: His ambitions to overhaul Social Security and immigration law are dead; plans to update his signature education program have foundered; few other initiatives are waiting in the wings.

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But on a host of foreign and domestic policy issues, backed by a remarkably disciplined Republican Party in the House and Senate, Bush has been able to confound Democrats. It has been a source of great frustration to the party that came to power with sky-high expectations and the belief it had a mandate for change. And it is a vivid reminder of how much clout even a weakened president can have -- especially one as single-minded as Bush.

“We have custody of Congress, but we don’t have control,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village). “Bush has shown, time and again, that he’s a very stubborn guy. November 2006 didn’t change that.”

Many Republicans have been surprised and impressed with Bush’s continuing power -- even when he has used it to ends they disagreed with.

“At the beginning of the year, most of us viewed the president as having less control over the process than ever,” said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), a moderate who voted against Bush on healthcare, the budget and other issues. “But this year, he realized more goals than in a lot of the years when he had Republicans controlling Congress.”

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At a news conference Thursday after Congress adjourned for the year, Bush had kind words for much of Congress’ work and did not gloat over his success in keeping Democrats’ ambitions in check.

“What ended up happening was good for the country,” he said.

Democrats blamed this year’s congressional gridlock on Bush, but his inflexibility on key issues was just one factor.

Republican lawmakers showed scant interest in compromise. Democrats were riven by internal divisions. And Bush did little to unite rather than divide the factions on Capitol Hill. He did not much resemble the kind of politician he was as governor of Texas, when he forged a strong relationship with the Democratic lieutenant governor.

Immediately after the 2006 election, it looked as if Bush might offer Democrats an olive branch and set a more bipartisan tone. He let go controversial Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. He called incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) at home on Christmas. After years of ignoring congressional Democrats, he began inviting them by the dozen to the White House to hear them out.

But the honeymoon did not last long. Democrats were furious when, after an election they believed was a mandate to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, Bush in January announced a buildup. A few weeks later, he went around Congress and issued an executive order giving the White House greater control over the rules and policies issued by regulatory agencies. White House meetings with Democrats turned partisan -- and then petered out. Bush repeatedly reached for the bluntest of presidential tools -- the veto.

His first veto this year nixed a war spending bill that included a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq. Democrats’ promise to press the issue all year lost steam after testimony in September from the top commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, instilled confidence in Republicans whose commitment to the war had grown shaky. Without more GOP defections, Democrats in the Senate were powerless to undercut Bush’s war policy.

Bush also wielded his veto power to great effect on domestic issues.

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He blocked Democratic efforts to expand stem cell research, a popular bill that had broad bipartisan support. The failed effort to override that veto provided a window onto a dynamic that was key to Bush’s source of strength throughout the year: Many moderate Republicans parted ways with the president on the stem cell override vote -- as they later did on his veto of the children’s health bill -- but there were enough conservatives who agreed with him to sustain his vetoes.

Bush issued a barrage of veto threats to curb Democrats’ domestic spending plans -- an effort that helped him regain some favor among fiscal conservatives who had lambasted him for allowing the Republican-controlled Congress to jack up spending to record levels.

“Fiscal conservatives can see the president getting stronger on spending this year than in the previous six years,” said Brian Riedl, a budget expert at the Heritage Foundation.

Democrats had wanted to add $22 billion to Bush’s funding request. But he drew a line in the sand and guarded it for months. He vetoed a bill packed with spending for education, health and other popular programs. The final budget approved this week adhered to his overall spending limit -- and dropped riders on abortion and other issues he objected to. And it included the money for the Iraq war with no strings attached.

Bush also held the line against Democrats’ efforts to raise taxes, which they proposed to offset the costs of new health spending, energy programs and a middle-class tax break. Faced with Bush’s veto, Democrats could not enact taxes on such inviting targets as cigarettes, wealthy hedge-fund managers and big oil companies.

Bush’s Republican allies were almost giddy with their unexpected success.

“Who would have thought a year ago that Democrats would have come down to the president’s budget number, that we would be ending the year by funding the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that we could complete the year without raising taxes on the American people?” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “And all despite having a Democrat majority in Congress.”

Heading into the 2008 elections, Democrats will have to keep their supporters from becoming demoralized over not being able to deliver more with their majority.

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“It’s hard for them to understand, and it’s even harder for us to live with,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

But Democrats are trying to turn their tribulations into a campaign issue by telling voters that the party will not really have a working majority until they expand their Senate caucus from the current 51 to 60 -- the number they need to block GOP filibusters and other stalling tactics.

The tag line on a fundraising pitch by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee: “51 seats is not enough. Help us turn our country around.”

Acknowledging that GOP victories this year consisted simply of blocking Democrats, some Republicans say they will have to develop a more positive agenda to build a successful political brand. Said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), “The product we’re selling is negative.”

janet.hook@latimes.com


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