President Bush's second-term plans to reshape Social Security, immigration laws and other domestic programs are facing a stiff challenge from a group that was reliably accommodating...
WASHINGTON President Bush’s second-term plans to reshape Social Security, immigration laws and other domestic programs are facing a stiff challenge from a group that was reliably accommodating in the president’s first four years: congressional Republicans.
After essentially rubber-stamping much of Bush’s first-term agenda, many House and Senate Republicans plan to assert themselves more forcefully to put their mark on domestic policy in the new year, according to several lawmakers.
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House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has privately criticized White House handling of the recent intelligence bill and Bush’s plan to postpone tax reform until 2006 or later. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., and others have publicly complained about the political and fiscal hazards of overhauling Social Security. Several senators, including a few 2008 presidential contenders, are rushing to promote their own Social Security plans to compete with Bush’s.
A number of conservative Republicans who are concerned about states rights, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are threatening to derail the White House plan to impose federal limits on medical lawsuits. “It’s one of the worst bills going,” Graham said.
But the president’s most nettlesome intraparty issue in early 2005 may be immigration, lawmakers said. Bush’s goal of granting guest-worker status to large numbers of undocumented immigrants is about to collide head-on with House Republicans’ push to crack down on illegal immigrants, in part by denying them driver’s licenses.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois salvaged the intelligence legislation this month only by telling GOP colleagues that the White House has vowed to allow tough immigration restrictions, including the driver’s-license proposal, that were removed from the measure to accompany the first “must-pass” legislation of 2005.
“If the president wants to maintain credibility with House Republicans, he has to be engaged and willing to pass immigration reform that conservatives want,” said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., one of 57 House Republicans who voted against the intelligence bill Bush just signed into law.
“If he does that, he will build a bridge” that could open the way to far-reaching changes to Social Security, the tax code and other policies, LaHood said. “If he’s missing in action on that issue, he’s going to have big problems.”
Bush’s ability to navigate these concerns will go a long way in determining whether he can do what few previous presidents have done: enact sweeping domestic-policy changes in a second term.
To be sure, Bush has shown a knack for bending Congress to his will. He overcame Republican complaints to enact three tax-cut packages, impose accountability standards on educators and add a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare. He did so with smaller Republican congressional majorities than he will enjoy at the start of a second term. But the stiff resistance he faced from GOP House members in pushing through a massive restructuring of U.S. intelligence operations hinted at the challenges ahead.
Bush will face a new, and in some ways less predictable, congressional environment in his second term. There will be 55 Republican senators, four more than during most of the first term, which should strengthen Bush’s hand. But the new crop includes a few, such as former Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who are more conservative than Bush and have reputations for independence.
There will be 232 House Republicans, three more than the first term. But House Republicans such as DeLay are telling colleagues they, too, have accumulated considerable political capital by holding the House majority for a decade and picking up seats in back-to-back elections. The bigger a party’s majority, often the harder it is to impose party discipline, several GOP observers said.
At a recent GOP leadership retreat, two participants said DeLay appeared to annoy White House political chief Karl Rove by signaling a more aggressive role in the new Congress.
Some Republicans no longer feel tethered to Bush politically, as they did in the 2002 midterm elections and this year. Other senators, including Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, John McCain of Arizona and George Allen of Virginia, will be animated by White House ambitions of their own.
Some Republican lawmakers contend that they allowed the White House to usurp too much of Congress’ institutional power and that they need to re-establish the House and Senate’s role in writing laws. The White House is aware of frustration among Capitol Hill Republicans and is moving to address it, senior White House officials said.
They are including top lawmakers in early talks about key issues, such as Social Security, and making staff changes to improve relations. Graham said White House officials are acting unusually “gracious” of late.
Bush has powerful allies on the Hill. Frist in many ways owes his leadership job to Bush and Rove, who helped orchestrate the Tennessee physician’s rise to power. Some Republicans say Frist would like Rove to run his 2008 White House bid, which would give the party leader even more incentive to please the White House in the 109th Congress.
The president also has forged a close relationship with Hastert, who like Bush is comfortable working outside the public eye. And Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, continues to serve as a respected middleman between Bush and House Republicans.
But several lawmakers said the president needs to rub elbows with more rank-and-file Republicans to build support for tough issues, such as creating private accounts in Social Security.
“There’s got to be lots more opportunities for schmoozing, one-on-one talks in small groups at the White House,” LaHood said. “That goes a long, long way to building the kind of relationships he needs to pass Social Security reform.”
Addressing that issue, the president recently sent Rove and White House congressional liaison David Hobbs to a private retreat with GOP leaders, as part of a broader effort to develop a plan to create private retirement accounts using a portion of payroll taxes. Participants discussed, among other things, whether Bush or Congress should take the lead in writing the legislation.
Congressional Republicans are willing to help, but they expect solid White House support for other measures they favor, said Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, a member of the House GOP leadership who voted against the Bush-backed intelligence bill. “We know the financial woes of Social Security, and we’ve got to explain that over and over again,” he said.
In return, he added, Bush must rein in moderate Senate Republicans, such as Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who are accustomed to more political leeway than most House members enjoy.
“If Specter starts getting horsy on medical-malpractice reform” and on proposed limits to gay marriage and stem-cell research, Kingston said, “House members are going to be upset” if the White House stands idly by.