You can't govern from Capitol Hill. Newt Gingrich, as Republican House speaker, tried after the landslide of 1994 and failed. Yet Democrats, with their "100 hours" agenda in the House and 10 legislative "priorities" in the Senate, act as if they can run Washington. House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid are promising to take the country in a "new direction." Good luck.
What stands in their way? Three rather large impediments. One, the Democratic majority in the Senate is fragile (51-49), and it's hardly overwhelming in the House (233-202). Second, Democrats are fractured on many issues--not just Iraq but even on whether to pursue a moderate strategy of moving slowly and carefully or one of going for broke to roll back the conservative advances of the Bush years. And third, there's Bush and his weapons.
The president has quite an arsenal: veto, filibuster by Senate Republicans, bully pulpit, a potential alliance of Republicans and conservative Democrats on selected issues, recess appointments, discretion to act on foreign policy without congressional approval. In a political fight, Congress can't match a president's tools.
And Bush is prepared to use them. His strategy is to join with Democrats on issues on which they agree--extension of No Child Left Behind, comprehensive immigration reform, and stepped-up funding for alternative energy--and strongly oppose everything else that Democrats are proposing. This amounts to limited bipartisanship--very limited.
Bush, according to aides, feels "liberated" to insist on fiscal restraint. He was more or less obligated--or at least felt he was--to sign spending bills passed by a Republican Congress. But with a Democratic Congress, "he can be bolder than he otherwise might have been," an aide says. That means a willingness--perhaps an eagerness--to use the veto. In his first six years as president, Bush often threatened vetoes but vetoed only a single measure.
To the delight of the White House, Democrats have endorsed the same fiscal goal as the president: a balanced budget by 2012. But Bush and Democrats are sure to disagree on how to achieve it. The White House wants to hold down spending but not raise taxes. Bush advisers assume Democrats will prefer higher spending plus tax increases. And they're convinced the politics of the two plans favors Republicans. "I want the Democrats saying higher taxes," an aide says.
This approach is a bit of a gamble. Democrats believe raising taxes on the well-to-do to pay for, say, expanded health care benefits for children is a political winner. It might be. But when Bush adviser Karl Rove spoke to Grover Norquist's weekly gathering of conservatives last week in Washington, he offered to bet anyone in the room $5 that the president would finish his two terms without having signed a single tax hike. Rove had only one taker.
If Rove is right--and I believe he is--Social Security reform is off the table in Bush's final two years. Democrats look kindly on a fiscal fix for Social Security that involves raising the ceiling on income subject to payroll taxation. But they won't offer Bush what he might want--personal investment accounts--in exchange for swallowing a tax increase. "He's not going to raise taxes for nothing," an adviser says.
Bush, of course, has opposed tax increases throughout his presidency. Last week, in a piece published in the Wall Street Journal, he wrote that "now is not the time to raise taxes on the American people." Still there have been fears he was weakening on taxes after the election disaster last November. Not so, his aides say. His no-new-taxes policy is unwavering and all-encompassing.
Even before Democrats took over Congress last week, the White House was developing tactics to block their agenda. One of the six items on the "100 hours" program in the House is expanded funding of embryonic stem cell research. It's likely to pass Congress, prompting a Bush veto that the House is all but certain to sustain. The president is also expected to disclose new breakthroughs from non-embryonic stem cell research.
Bush is braced to accept a boost in the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, but not unless it is coupled with tax relief for small businesses. Some Democrats and organized labor oppose the so-called offsets. Siding with Bush, Senate Republicans may mount a filibuster to block a simple increase.
One way or another, Bush and his aides figure they'll defeat the Democratic bid to have the federal government negotiate drug prices for the popular Medicare prescription drug program. The bill may not pass. If it does, Bush is ready to veto it--in the expectation his veto will be easily upheld.
Then there's the item to cut the interest rate on student loans in half. Democrats have already discovered this would cost far more than initially anticipated. Its future is unclear after Democrats concluded it might have to be phased in over five years.
Democrats are not powerless. They can make life in Washington unpleasant for the Bush administration. They can turn oversight hearings into partisan show trials. They can bombard the administration with subpoenas. They can leak what they find to the press. They can recommend Bush appointees for criminal prosecution.
But they cannot stop the president from deploying more troops in Iraq to secure Baghdad, as he is expected to do soon. And while they can reject confirmation of Bush's nominees for United Nations ambassador, director of national intelligence, and deputy secretary of state, Bush can respond with recess appointments. The Democrats' ultimate weapon is a cutoff of funds for Iraq, but they have said they won't use this weapon, for now anyway.
One might suppose the White House would be chastened, given Bush's dismal public approval rating. Bush and his aides aren't. Instead, they're amused by Democratic pretensions of being in charge of Washington. "It's just hilarious," an aide says. "They've got to legislate. We govern. We run things." Presidents, even unpopular ones, usually do.
By Fred Barnes