Jewish World Review April 28, 2003 / 26 Nissan, 5763
John H. Fund
With the war won, it's time for Bush to master the Senate
Republicans are furious with Majority Leader Bill Frist for cutting a deal to pass a budget before Congress left town for its Easter break. He bowed to demands by two dissident Republicans, George Voinovich of Ohio and Olympia Snowe of Maine, that the size of any Bush tax cut that passes the Senate be kept at $350 billion. That's less than half the size of the president's original proposal. Dr. Frist says he will still fight for the largest possible tax cut in the conference committee, where the House and Senate reconcile their versions of the tax bill. But the perception that the full Bush tax cut is on life support has set in.
Dr. Frist clearly blew it in not communicating better with the House or the administration on the deal he was cutting before recessing the Senate. The deal also came at a time when Mr. Bush was concentrating on commander-in-chief duties in fighting the war in Iraq.
But the problem that President Bush faces goes well beyond Dr. Frist or the distractions of foreign policy. It reflects the nature of the modern Senate itself. The days when Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson could run the body like a ringmaster cracking his whip and cut binding deals with a single leader of the opposite party are over. Now the Senate is filled with 100 independent operators--all of them with egos and many who have grown cranky after years in the world's most exclusive legislative club. Democrats have decided to slow the Senate down even further by routinely threatening filibusters against qualified judicial nominees. A body where Republicans have a 51-vote majority in reality can operate only if 60 senators are available to override any filibuster attempt.
Only President Bush can break open what threatens to become an "axis of paralysis." He's making a good start this week by going to Ohio--home of Mr. Voinovich--to stump for his tax bill and dispatching cabinet members to the home states of other key senators whose votes he needs. But he should also sit down with one of his cabinet members, John Ashcroft, who has some keen insights on the Senate, where he served a term before becoming attorney general.
Like the president, Mr. Ashcroft is a former governor. After joining the Senate in 1995 he quickly became frustrated with the place. By 1997 he was planning his own campaign for president, which he soon abandoned after it became clear that Mr. Bush was cornering much of the conservative base. But during his exploratory candidacy, Mr. Ashcroft was candid with audiences on the differences between executive and legislative authority.
Mr. Ashcroft said a president had to avoid the Senate mindset at all costs because legislative types usually don't make good leaders--one reason why only two sitting senators--Warren Harding and JFK--have ever been elected president. Mr. Ashcroft likened legislating in the Senate to a demolition derby. "Senators drive their own idea into the arena and proceed and smash into each other until nothing's left but a smoking pile of wreckage," Mr. Ashcroft said. "Then the Senate old bulls come in and take a fender from a Ford, an engine from a Chevy, wheels from a Plymouth, a transmission from a Honda. The resulting junker is dubbed a 'consensus,' and while it won't win any races, at least it can be said something drives out of the arena."
Voters accept such compromises when it comes to legislative details, but when it comes to national leaders they want vision. "The public wants someone to describe a Corvette. That's what Ronald Reagan did. He put a racecar out there and everyone said, 'Wow, we want that,' and he changed the world," Mr. Ashcroft said back in 1998.
President Bush has consistently shown a willingness to take political risks by throwing out a few big ideas and pushing relentlessly for them. It's how he won his first tax-bill fight, how he faced down Congress on creating a Homeland Security department and won the war with Iraq over many doubters. Now those same skeptics say his tax bill is critically wounded and his tort-reform proposals are dead on arrival.
Don't be so sure. A president with a successful war behind him has political capital that comes rarely to a chief executive. He can drop into key senators' states to welcome home returning troops. While there, he can give a separate speech calling on the senators from that state to help him win the battle to restore economic growth at home. The credibility he has established over the critics who questioned the war can help him win public support for this economic program over the objections of those same critics who were proven wrong on Iraq.
A successful war president can also call on the old bulls of the Senate to make some sacrifices. One reason Sen. Frist cut his unfortunate deal to reduce the tax cut was pressure from senators in both parties eager to leave on time for planned vacations and overseas junkets. Now some senior Republican senators are wearying of the fight to confirm judicial nominees being filibustered. Columnist Robert Novak reports that an increasing number of GOP senators are saying that the battle to confirm Miguel Estrada shouldn't be a top priority. Mr. Novak adds that "Senator [Ted] Kennedy's unprecedented plan to block Bush's judicial sections always has been based on the theory that Republican senators soon would tire of the struggle."
GOP senators are spoiled by almost seven years of solicitous treatment by former Majority Leader Trent Lott, who usually made sure senators could be home for dinner and began their recess periods on time. Few of them will want to stay up late to fight for a large tax cut or tort reform or judicial nominees unless President Bush makes it a top priority and asks them for their maximum help.
The president can also apply a lot of pressure to moderate Democratic senators. In
addition to vast patronage and veto powers, Mr. Bush was largely responsible for
Republicans taking back the Senate last year with his last-minute blitzkrieg campaigning.
GOP committee chairmen need to be reminded of that. The Senate is its own power base
and has its own institutional prerogatives. But its rigidity and diffusion of power mean
that it achieves great things only when it works with a successful president to pass
ambitious legislation. The president should see to it that that happens.
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