Jewish World Review March 13, 2001 / 18 Adar 5761
Nice talk aside, Bush team wants
to win above all
JUST as Bill Clinton erred by aligning too closely with liberal
Democrats early in his presidency, moderate Sen. John Breaux
(D-La.) thinks President Bush is tying himself too closely to
conservative hard-liners on the tax issue at the moment.
Senate aides say Breaux issued a warning to Bush to that effect
at a meeting last week at the White House. Bush aides contend
that Breaux merely expressed a "general concern ... a hope for
However, in an interview with me and in various other forums,
Breaux has been outspoken in protesting that Bush is
undermining the bipartisan spirit he supposedly wants to foster
by pushing his tax bill through the House without consulting with
Democrats and without first passing a budget resolution.
"It's creating a legacy of bitterness," Breaux told me. "It's
uniting Democrats against him in a way the House Democratic
leadership could never do by itself. And it will block future
co-operation on issues like education, Medicare and Social
The White House and House GOP leaders want a fast tax victory
at a time when a new survey taken by Clinton's longtime
pollster, Mark Penn, shows 68 percent support for Bush's plan.
And Bush undoubtedly will win his big tax vote in the House
today. But White House aides agree with Democratic leadership
estimates that fewer than 10 Democrats will vote for the
Breaux said such tactics "represent the same old culture of 'win,
no matter what' that I thought Bush was trying to get away
from. That can never work in the Senate. [Bush] may win in the
House, but lose in the end."
Clinton famously lost his health care reform campaign - and
control of Congress - by trying to win legislative battles with
Democratic support only, as advised by his party's leadership.
Breaux believes that Bush is similarly following the lead of House
GOP leaders who are accustomed to ignoring Democrats and
pushing through legislation almost exclusively with Republican
Breaux's conciliatory, consultative, "center-out" approach,
which he's been advocating year-in and year-out, certainly is at
odds with the victory-oriented attitude prevailing at the White
House. The win-at-all-costs stance, however, also prevails
among Democratic leaders.
Even though Bush has made grand gestures of outreach to
Democrats, it's clear that he and his top aides are more
interested in winning than in bipartisan collegiality.
The White House believes - without a doubt correctly - that
Democratic leaders primarily want to negotiate in order to slow
down Bush's agenda so they can defeat it.
According to the White House, the idea of getting an early
House tax victory to establish momentum originally came from
House GOP leaders.
However, at first they suggested passing a bill containing
popular items such as marriage-penalty and estate-tax relief
that could achieve big bipartisan majorities.
The White House, aides there say, decided it would be better to
lead with the more difficult task of income tax rate cuts, which
Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) fashioned into
a bill and pushed through his committee last week on a
Democrats complained that they had no input on the bill
beforehand and, in the case of the conservative Blue Dogs, that
Republicans failed to pass a budget resolution before starting on
Moreover, Democrats say that getting Bush's tax bill through
the House quickly will not speed it to passage in the Senate,
where a budget resolution won't be voted on until early April
and a tax bill sometime thereafter.
One Democratic leadership aide said that by going for a quick
House victory, "Bush lost the opportunity to show he's different.
It's same old, same old around here. 'We've got the votes and
we're going to ram it through ... get four or five Democratic
votes, call it bipartisanship and have a nice day.'"
What's more, the aide observed, there's been no Bush follow-up
on promises of continuing contact with House Democratic
leaders since late January. "There was radio silence all during
February. Bush didn't even call when he bombed Iraq."
Top Bush advisers are acting as if House Minority Leader Richard
Gephardt (D-Mo.) is, at bottom, an adversary who needs to be
defeated, not conciliated.
Gephardt, according to one White House aide, "just wants to
slow [the tax plan] down. He knows that the faster this [tax]
vote is held, the sooner subsequent votes will come.
"He recognizes that the faster Bush looks, the stronger Bush
looks. Those [who] are leading the way in objecting to our
procedure are people who want the bill to fail."
Moreover, the White House predicts that today's House vote
"will be the high-water mark for the Democrats." In subsequent
votes, such as the forthcoming marriage penalty-estate tax
measure and final passage of tax legislation, many more
Democrats will come aboard.
Meantime, there's the Senate to navigate. There, Bush will talk
to Democrats and wavering Republicans. He is also putting
pressure on them by campaigning for his plan in their home
The real test of bipartisanship will come when Bush faces the
need to compromise on the substance of the tax bill. He still can
act in a bipartisan fashion and get substantially what he wants.
That would make him a political
JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.
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