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.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) has privately criticized White House handling of the recent intelligence bill and Bush's plan to postpone tax reform until 2006 or later. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (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.
And a number of conservative Republicans concerned about states' rights, such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), 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 intra-party 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 J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) 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 (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 toward determining whether he can do what few previous presidents have done: enact broad 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 representative Tom Coburn (Okla.) who are more conservative than Bush and have reputations for independence.
There will be 232 House Republicans, three more than this term. But House Republicans such as DeLay are telling colleagues that 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 irritate White House political chief Karl Rove by signaling a more aggressive role in the new Congress.
Some Republicans no longer feel tethered to the president politically, as they did in the 2002 midterm elections and this year. Other senators, including Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), John McCain (Ariz.) and George Allen (Va.), will be animated by White House ambitions of their own.
Some GOP lawmakers contend that they allowed the White House to usurp too much of Congress's institutional power and that they need to reestablish the role of the House and Senate in writing laws. The White House is aware of frustration among 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 says White House officials are acting unusually "gracious" of late.