Bush Weighs More Pushback In Bid To Regain Momentum

If there is one thing President Bush isn't these days, it's being shy about confronting Congress. He's holding firm on his claims to executive privilege in the investigation of why U.S. attorneys were fired, and he's made it clear that he believes policy on Iraq is up to him, not Capitol Hill. But his confrontational approach these days reaches further, to nearly every policy nook in Washington. In the past month or so, Bush has threatened to veto a bipartisan plan to expand children's health insurance, a law governing farm policy that passed the House of Representatives last week, and almost all of the spending bills that Congress must pass by October.

Call him "President No."

Yes, they're just threats for now. But advisers are counseling that Bush's best bet to recover from his long slump in the polls and to brush aside the lame-duck label is to assert his power. "The real problem for Bush now," says a senior Bush administration official, "is that it looks like he doesn't have control over the government." The way out, they say, is to take on the Democratic Congress, whether on Iraq, spending, or domestic priorities.

So far in his presidency, Bush has kept the cap firmly on his trusty veto pen. He's sent back to Congress only three pieces of legislation: an expansion of stem cell research funding (he nixed that twice) and a war funding bill this spring that included a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops that Bush has been adamantly against.

The president's most recent threats are mostly a matter of "fiscal discipline." Bush has threatened to block most of the 12 spending bills governing different departments because together they would push overall spending for fiscal 2008 past the $933 billion in his budget request back in February. Democrats plan to surpass that figure by a little over $20 billion for mostly domestic priorities--a small amount when you consider inflation, they say, but too much for Bush.

Democrats are trying to push the spending bills through one by one, although the legislative calendar may be working against them, leading the party in the fall to perhaps cram the bills together into one big spending bill, known as an "omnibus" bill. That would set the stage for a true Washington battle royal. Congressional Republicans are ramping up charges that Democrats are heading toward an "omnibust"; thus far, they have indicated they will stand by the president if he blocks the spending bills.

The veto threat on a stand-alone children's-healthcare bill, which has strong backing from key Republican senators, may come a bit sooner. Bush may have a bit more time on a separate farm bill (over which debate has barely begun in the Senate), although that too must pass by October if Congress is to do anything other than just extend current policy. All these questions will dominate Washington once lawmakers return from their August recess; that's also when Gen. David Petraeus is set to release his report assessing progress in the war in Iraq. So partisan fireworks seem a sure bet for September.

By Silla Brush and Kenneth T. Walsh