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Split decision

cover image

Bush's job-approval ratings are sky high--so why does he keep getting walloped on Capitol Hill?

After Sept. 11, George W. Bush launched the Breakfast Club, a meeting held every two weeks or so with the top four leaders in Congress. The idea was to make the lawmakers feel important by treating them to scrambled eggs, coffee and the President's personality. But the Breakfast Club has not met since Feb. 27. That morning Bush led the group--Democrats Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt and Republicans Trent Lott and Dennis Hastert--on an hour-long tour of the world, briefing them on Afghanistan, Pakistan and his recent trip to Korea, Japan and China. But the next morning Daschle and Gephardt learned what he had left out. They woke up to a headline that said Bush was considering sending military advisers to fight al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. It was a major development, but Bush had not mentioned it. Daschle and Gephardt were furious.

The Breakfast Club needs a new name; you might even call it the Fight Club. Complaints that the Bush Administration has been ignoring Congress are coming from Democrats and Republicans alike--and Congress has found some extremely effective ways to punch back. For a President with strong popular support--he scored a 75% approval rating in the latest TIME/CNN poll--Bush has been on a surprising losing streak in Congress since Sept. 11. Democrats forced him to go along with making airport-security workers federal employees and yanked his corporate tax breaks out of the economic-stimulus package. G.O.P. leaders persuaded him to "postpone" Social Security reform, and members of both parties compelled him to rewrite his faith-based charity initiative so drastically that it now bears scant resemblance to the original proposal. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee shot down his nomination of Charles Pickering for the federal appeals court. And just last week the Senate, by a 60-to-40 vote, sent him John McCain's campaign-finance-reform bill, which he does not want to sign but will, and stalled an energy bill that allows drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which the White House has lobbied furiously to pass.

Bush might have won some of these fights, legislators say, if he had worked a little harder to stroke Congress. Ted Stevens, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, joined Democratic chairman Robert Byrd in an angry letter to Bush two weeks ago over Bush's refusal to allow Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge to testify before Congress. Republican Congressman Ernest Istook, who chairs the House subcommittee that controls the Office of Homeland Security's budget, hinted that he might hold up funds unless Ridge comes forth. (After all that, the White House began talking about a compromise.) And some Republicans grumble that by refusing to release information to Congress about Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, the White House has pointlessly provided the Democrats with ammunition in their effort to portray Bush and the G.O.P. as tools of Big Business. "Why antagonize people you're going to need down the road?" asks a senior Republican Senator. "I don't get it."

White House aides say the conflict is nothing more than what Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer calls "a classic executive-legislative struggle over information." They have a list of 88 briefings Administration officials have given lawmakers on the war and homeland security, and tartly note that some were sparsely attended. They point to the 124 meetings Bush has had with members since taking office in January 2001. "For God's sake, if they've got concerns about what we're doing, all they have to do is ask!" says an exasperated Bush adviser. Adds another: "We kiss so much ass every day [on Capitol Hill], we have to ice down our lips at night."

Bush was famous in Texas for picking and choosing his fights, and backing off when he knew a cause was lost. He is following the same strategy in Washington, but congressional Republicans grumble that he is often too choosy. House Speaker Hastert was quietly enraged last month when Bush all but abandoned G.O.P. Congressmen battling campaign-finance reform. (During the 2000 campaign, Bush frequently suggested the reform bill was unconstitutional but has since signaled that he will sign it. "How can he sign a bill he believes is illegal?" asks one Republican.) Bush barely tried to rescue Pickering's nomination at the 11th hour, even though the judge's patron was Lott, the Senate's Republican leader. The day before the Judiciary Committee's vote, Bush phoned Charles Schumer, a liberal Democrat on the panel, to ask if he would change his mind and support Pickering. Schumer announced in early February that he was against the Mississippi judge. Incredulous at Bush's call, Schumer politely declined.

Bush's reluctance to spend political capital on tough fights has emboldened Democrats. Daschle and Gephardt plan to press for vastly more money than Bush wants for prescription-drug and education spending, two issues they believe will play well for their party in the November elections. And Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have targeted four more conservative nominees they might block for the appeals court: Jeffrey Sutton in Ohio, Miguel Estrada in the District of Columbia, D. Brooks Smith in Pennsylvania and Priscilla Owen in Texas. Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, says Bush intends to fight for those nominees, but then he also insists Bush fought hard for Pickering. To counter the Democrats, the President plans to spend the coming months pushing Congress to pass an energy bill that includes drilling in the anwr, more tax cuts for small businesses and a patients' bill of rights. "There's a healthy agenda out there," says Nick Calio, Bush's chief liaison to Congress, "waiting to be acted on."

Passing that agenda will not be easy, in part because Bush, despite his reputation, is not always eager to do what is necessary to win over lawmakers. In December he gave a ride on Air Force One to half the South Carolina congressional delegation as he flew back to Washington from a speech in Charleston. The lawmakers spent the flight in the plane's conference room, waiting for Bush to stop by. Inside his office, aides kept reminding Bush, who was in the middle of giving an interview, that he needed to pay a visit to the Congressmen and Senator who were aboard, but the President kept putting it off. Finally, as the plane landed, Bush turned to his chief of staff, Andy Card, laughed and said, "Forget Congress." --With reporting by John F. Dickerson/Washington



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Cover Date: April 1, 2002

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