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Bush unable to control Congress

CHICAGO SUN-TIMES | June 6, 2005
BY ROBERT NOVAK

The decline in President Bush's political fortunes fits the cyclic pattern of all presidents except for one constant that troubles Republicans. In nearly 41/2 years, Bush has not progressed in handling Congress. He seems as much at a loss in dealing with the legislative branch as the day he entered the White House.

Bush is the only Republican president since the 1920s to enjoy protracted control of both houses of Congress by his own party. Yet, he seems less able to direct the legislative branch than Republican predecessors who had to handle a Democratic-controlled Congress. With Congress in its lengthy Memorial Day recess, GOP legislators and lobbyists tabulated the scorecard on items large and small.

*The House passed a stem cell research funding bill marked by Bush for his first veto after GOP leaders made a deal with liberals to bring the measure to the floor in return for their votes on the budget.

*The Senate's highway bill exceeds the president's overly generous spending limits, peppered with pork projects earmarked by individual senators.

*Senior Republican senators cut a deal on judicial confirmations that threw overboard at least two of the president's nominees.

*Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio delayed and broke the momentum for confirmation of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

*Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, preparing a bid for the GOP presidential nomination, has put a hold on the nomination of longtime Bush supporter Julie Finley as ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) because of her abortion activism.

*CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) ratification is in deep trouble and will need more effort than shown so far by the White House.

*The president's top legislative priority, Social Security reform, is becalmed. What Bush wants cannot pass either chamber of Congress.

This dreary overview suggests the second-term blues for any president because of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution that established presidential term limits. But being a lame duck may be a special burden for Bush. "I don't believe the president understands that though he never again will run for any office, we have to run every two years," a leading House Republican told me.

That lack of rapport reflects coolness between a conservative Congress and a conservative president. Only Jimmy Carter as president was more of an outsider than Bush. In my first interview with then Gov. Bush, he told me how he disliked Washington. He acts as though the city today -- especially Congress -- is less attractive than ever.

Bush never has been able to find a Washington facsimile of the late Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, the old guard Democrat who was Bush's invaluable partner during his governorship. He has found congressional Democrats to be in the mold of Rep. George Miller of California, who was the president's partner briefly in passing the 2001 education bill. Miller and his colleagues, Bush has learned, are liberal, partisan and combative.

Nor is the president adept at turning around Republican strays. When the House Republican leadership on occasion has given him a list of recalcitrant members to rope in on a specific bill, he never has delivered. Whether he has tried very hard is debatable, but Bush is no Lyndon B. Johnson in dealing with members of his own party.

The president, in truth, cannot take credit for all of his legislative accomplishments this year. He benefits from a well-oiled Republican organization in the House. But the major bills passed this year -- reforms governing class-action lawsuits and bankruptcy -- were lobbied to passage by "K Street" (the business lobbyists). They, not Bush, were responsible for 73 House Democrats crossing over on a vote to make bankruptcies more difficult.

As a Nixon speechwriter long ago, William Safire stressed to me the cyclical nature of presidential fortunes with this aphorism: "The gloom and doom will lift when the cherry blossoms appear." There will be better times for Bush, but there is reason to suspect that he never will feel comfortable on Capitol Hill. His leadership of Congress is a continuing problem.


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