Rocky landscape in Congress poses challenges for Bush
Clockwise from top left: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After one of the most evenly divided presidential elections in history, George W. Bush's often-repeated campaign promise to be "a uniter, not a divider" will be put to the ultimate test as his administration prepares to push a conservative agenda through a bisected Congress, which begins a new session Wednesday.
Overshadowed by the Florida electoral dispute was the extremely close nature of this year's congressional races. Much-ballyhooed Democratic efforts to retake control of the U.S. House of Representatives proved essentially fruitless, with the party picking up just one seat in 435 contests -- but Democrats had a surprisingly strong showing in a handful of Senate races, knocking the Republican majority on its heels.
Emerging from dust of the presidential brawl and an extremely close race in Washington state was an even 50-50 split -- a first since 1880, when the upper chamber was divided 37-37. In fact, Democrats will control the Senate until Bush's Jan. 20 inauguration, since tie-breaking votes are cast by the vice president and Democrat Al Gore will hold that seat until then.
And while Republicans can take solace in Vice President-elect Dick Cheney's constitutional ability to cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate, most would undoubtedly prefer that the Bush administration's No. 2 man be firmly planted in a West Wing office rather than the one set aside for him on Capitol Hill.
Cheney's presence -- or absence -- on Capitol Hill will be an early indicator of whether the 107th Congress can live up to promises of working toward bipartisanship compromise on this year's top campaign issues. Among the issues confronting lawmakers: protecting the solvency of Social Security, a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients, education reform and tax cuts.
"We differed about the details of these proposals," Bush told the nation after claiming victory in the presidential race. "But there was remarkable consensus about the important issues before us: excellent schools, retirement and health security, tax relief, a strong military, a more civil society. We have discussed our differences. Now it is time to find common ground."
The president-elect has continuously emphasized a bipartisan approach since winning the election, but has offered few signs of compromise on any his trademark campaign themes. As Cheney told reporters during a recent trip to Capitol Hill: "The suggestion that somehow, because this was a close election, we should fundamentally change our beliefs, I just think is silly."
Taxes likely to remain top issue for GOP
Although Bush has said that education reform will likely be the first piece of legislation he sends to Congress, his ambitious plan for $1.3 trillion tax cut remains the centerpiece of his agenda -- and a point of contention for Democrats.
"I can't think of anything that would divide this nation more quickly, right off the bat, than to impress upon the Congress the importance of passing a tax cut of that magnitude," Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said earlier this month.
Daschle could emerge as the key player in the evenly-divided Senate
A number of congressional Republicans -- whose tax-cutting bills were repeatedly vetoed by President Clinton -- are also wary of the Bush plan, and have voiced preference for a piecemeal approach they believe would attract Democratic support.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, favors initially targeting a repeal of federal estate tax and an elimination of the so-called "marriage penalty" paid by two-earner couples. Both passed the 106th Congress with the help of Democrats before Clinton vetoed them.
Bush, however, has remained steadfast in his insistence that an across-the-board tax cut would would not only correct an inherently flawed IRS code, but also serve as an insurance policy for millions of Americans in the event of an economic slowdown.
"They may or may not agree it's the right thing, but I'm going to keep explaining till the votes start coming," Bush told reporters after meeting with congressional leaders, including Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri.
All eyes on Daschle
Daschle and Gephardt have promised Bush a honeymoon after he assumes offices January 20. How long lasts is a matter of speculation.
The South Dakota Democrat could emerge as the most influential member of the evenly-divided Senate -- where Republicans will need the support of 10 Democrats to end floor debate and move toward votes on key pieces of legislation.
Without Democratic cooperation, Senate business could screech to a halt with seemingly endless filibusters -- a scenario that would provide endless headaches for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi.
Daschle has called on Lott to agree to an equal ration of Democrats and Republicans on Senate committees, as well as looser rules allowing Democrats a voice in scheduling bills for floor votes.
Lott most also contend with the growing influence of centrist Republicans and Democrats in the upper chamber. Maverick Arizona Sen. John McCain, Bush's nemesis throughout much of the GOP presidential primary season, says he has the required 60 votes to move legislation overhauling campaign finance.
"As soon as its legislatively possible, I'd like to offer campaign finance reform, and then let Gov. Bush get on with his agenda," McCain told reporters earlier this month.
Early passage of such legislation could throw Bush's legislative game plan off balance. During the campaign, the Texas governor embraced initiatives banning corporations and unions from donating "soft money" to political parties, but remains opposed to limits on individual donors -- a major component of the McCain bill.
In addition to taxes, Bush has hinted a preference of moving forward on campaign proposals to provide vouchers to parents of children in failing schools and deploy a nationwide missile defense system -- two more issues which have minimal Democratic support.
In pursuing those and other top priorities, Republicans will likely engage in a "pick-off" strategy, shoring up support among GOP lawmakers before actively courting moderate and more conservative Democrats. The task will be particularly daunting task in the Senate, where Republicans will need the support of 10 Democrats to put and end to debate and force a vote.
If Bush fails to remain true to his core campaign issues, he does so at the risk of alienating his party's conservative base, eager to take advantage of the fact that Republicans control the White House and Congress for the first time since 1955.
House Majority Whip Tom Delay, R-Texas, told reporters earlier this month that GOP leaders welcome Democratic support in the 107th Congress, but will essentially "act the same way we have been" in pushing through an agenda.
'We have come a long way'
With a 221-213 majority, Republicans in the House will retain the power to push through legislation without Democratic support. But centrists from both parties are seeking a greater voice there as well.
"To those who say it's all extremes in Congress, we say that the extremely reasonable group -- moderate Republicans and Democrats -- are getting together," said Rep. Amo Houghton, R-New York, leader of the Republican Main Street Partnership.
Houghton and other have called on congressional leader to focus on areas where there is already some bipartisan support, such as election reform and a patient's bill of rights. Those sentiments were echoed by Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, during a recent meeting with the president-elect in Austin.
During the 106th Congress, Breaux spearheaded a bipartisan commission on Medicare reform, another issue certain to draw lawmakers' attention next year. He reportedly told Bush it will take the better part of the 107th Congress to build consensus on a plan to provide prescription drug coverage under the government program.
Democrats remain steadfastly opposed to Bush proposal to offer drug coverage through private insurers and HMOs and would prefer that a new benefit be incorporated into the existing Medicare system. Wide differences also remain over Bush's plan to allow private investment for younger workers under Social Security.
Breaux and Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine drew 26 Democrats and Republicans during a December session of the Senate Centrist Coalition. The group argues the bridging the gap
on such issues is the only way to avoid the dreaded label of a "do-nothing" Congress.
"There's going to be a new world order in the Senate," Snowe recently told Time Magazine. "We can't always get our way. We don't have the numbers."
Snowe finds herself among another rising faction in Congress -- women lawmakers. Once they are sworn in January, the Senate will include 13 and the House will include 59 women, both records.
Sen.-elect Debbie Stabenow of Michigan recently told CNN that the growing number of women will undoubtedly make a difference on issues such as health care and education. She is of four female Democrats entering the traditional man's club: first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York; Maria Cantwell of Washington state; and Jean Carnahan of Missouri.
"We have come a long way. There is a long way to go, but I think the decisions are better made as women are participating," Stabenow said.