Army Gen. David Petraeus’ update on the Iraq war will undoubtedly set off a fresh eruption of resolutions and debate in Congress.
But the latest turn in the Iraq debate is only one of several conflicts heading toward climax on Capitol Hill this autumn.
The next several weeks will starkly illuminate a wide variety of philosophical and political fault lines between the majority Democrats and their Republican rivals — tensions likely to frame the 2008 presidential elections and the congressional midterms.
Long-simmering disputes over President Bush’s expansive interpretation of his executive power are coming to a head. The resolution could permanently change the balance of power between the two branches of government.
Will Congress sue the White House to gain access to documents related to the politicization of government offices? Will it try to enforce subpoenas demanding senior Bush advisers testify about the firing of U.S. attorneys? If they do, how do they do it when the president has instructed the Department of Justice not to represent the legislative branch?
Those decisions are pending at the same time the White House is trying to shepherd through the Senate Judiciary Committee a permanent replacement for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who resigned last week amid lawmaker accusations that he misled or even perjured himself during his own appearances before the same panel.
These showdowns will take place amid a number of more traditional policy disputes over the environment, homeland security and, above all, the budget. Even a 1995-style government shutdown, while still regarded as a remote prospect, is not off the table.
The president has issued veto threats on nine of the dozen appropriations bills passed by the House.
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In a final meeting with reporters this summer, outgoing Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman said the president is “going to stick to the vetoes. He would very much like to avoid a government shutdown,” but “that will be a decision Congress has to make.”
As the dust settles at the West Wing exit door, an intriguing set of advisers remain inside: Four key congressional players in the 1995 government shutdown between President Clinton and the Republican Congress now serve as senior aides to President Bush.
Ed Gillespie, one-time aide to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), is now the president’s new chief communications adviser.
Barry Jackson, a former aide to House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), is a senior strategist in the political office headed by recently departed Karl Rove.
Dan Meyer, former chief of staff to the architect of the 1995 shutdown, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was recruited earlier this year to the White House legislative liaison office to improve coordination with Capitol Hill Republicans.
And leading the charge in a budget showdown, should it come to that, could be former Iowa Rep. Jim Nussle, a hard-nosed partisan and fiscal conservative who earned the nickname “knuckles” for his confrontational style in the House.
Bush has nominated Nussle to replace Portman as head of the OMB, a move congressional appropriators viewed as a signal of White House battle readiness.
It’s a fight some congressional Republicans hunger for as they struggle to regain their reputation for fiscal conservatism — a mantle that many conservatives blame the Bush administration for abandoning by pushing through expensive education and government-covered prescription drug coverage legislation.
“He’s been the biggest-spending president since Lyndon Johnson,” said Chris Edwards, director of tax policy at the libertarian Cato Institute. “He’s a social conservative, but he’s never been a fiscal conservative, in my view. He’s passed much bigger spening increases than President Clinton. Now he’s thinking about his legacy. He’s got nothing to lose with poll numbers so low.”
Those poll numbers, though, could be reason for pause at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. While Bush’s approval ratings are at historic lows, Congress scores even lower in public opinion surveys.
Indeed, if White House officials are gunning for a shutdown fight to refurbish the party’s fiscal credentials — or simply change the subject from Iraq and the troubled Department of Justice — they may be disappointed.
Two senior Democratic leadership aides said lawmakers aren’t interested in a shutdown showdown. The simplest way to avoid that would be to send the president a continuing budget resolution that would keep the government open at a spending level negotiated with the White House.
In 1995, House Republicans were so confident that the public’s distaste for the federal bureaucracy matched their own that they refused to send that sort of resolution to Clinton. Rather, they sent a continuing budget resolution that drastically reduced spending levels and boosted Medicare premiums. Clinton vetoed it; Gingrich refused to send another one.
That led to the first in a series of temporary shutdowns of national parks, the Smithsonian and a host of other government offices that infuriated the public and discredited the newly elected Republican majority.
Democrats have studied the model and learned from their Republican counterparts’ mistakes. The 12 appropriations bills that have moved through the House and now await Senate action include about $22 billion more in spending than Bush asked for in his own budget.
That difference is roughly the equivalent of two months of expenditures for the Iraq war, according to Scott Lilly, a budget expert at the Center for American Progress.
In addition to keeping spending hikes relatively modest, the programs targeted for spending increases are strategic Democratic targets.
About $4 billion of the spending hikes are aimed at improving administrative services and medical care for returning Iraq veterans. Emergency first responders and port security projects are in line for an extra $2 billion.
Democratic budget writers restored White House cuts in renewable energy research and added additional funding to those programs, accounting for about $800 million of the $20 billion gap between the White House and Congress, according to an analysis by Lilly.
The biggest chunk of new spending, $7 billion, is dedicated to boosting college grants, restoring cuts Bush made to Head Start and job training programs, and sending more money to state and local school systems that have complained about the costs of implementing testing and other mandates in Bush’s signature education program.
Certainly, it would be a setback for Democrats if they are unable to boost spending in areas their constituents believe have been long neglected by Bush. It would also give the president some bragging rights that he’d used his veto threats to tamp down runaway government spending.
But each of the disputed funding increases also could serve as a ready-made issue for campaign ads in the 2008 elections, which could make it hard for Bush to hold enough Republican votes to sustain his vetoes.
A study by Richard S. Conley, a political scientist at the University of Florida, found that when Republicans failed to override Clinton’s 1995 vetoes on five different occasions, it strengthened Clinton’s hand, unified Democrats and cemented the public’s view that the GOP Congress was to blame for the stalemate.
Many of the Democrat-drafted budget bills in contention this year received wide bipartisan support. That suggests Bush may have trouble getting Congress to sustain his vetoes. If he can’t, “that would be the end of the administration,” predicted Lilly.