Four years ago, coming into office with a shaky grip on the presidency, George W. Bush got off to a very fast start with Congress by asking lawmakers to do the things they love to do.
Within weeks after being sworn in for a first term, Bush was well on his way toward enactment of his top -- and most popular -- domestic policy goals: a huge tax cut and a plan to improve educational standards. Legislation to cut taxes by $1.35 trillion over 10 years was approved by summer; the No Child Left Behind schools measure was law by the end of the year.
Now, as he embarks on a second term with a clearer victory, Bush is asking Congress to take on a much more politically difficult and diverse agenda, topped off by a proposal to restructure Social Security by allowing workers to use some of their payroll taxes for private investment accounts. He also wants to restructure the tax code to encourage investment and savings, loosen immigration rules, limit damage awards from medical malpractice and other civil lawsuits, and squeeze spending for domestic programs as he tries to restrain soaring budget deficits. The president faces bloody fights over judicial nominations, including possible appointments to the Supreme Court, and continues to labor under the costs and controversy triggered by his Iraq policies.
"It's an exceptionally ambitious agenda, but it is going to be fought over in a highly contentious Congress, with the outcome exceedingly uncertain," said Marshall Wittmann, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who is now with the Democratic Leadership Council. Other presidents with ambitious agendas had less quarrelsome congresses, he noted. "This president faces a Congress where Republicans and Democrats view each other as the Hatfields and McCoys. It's a political blood feud between the two parties, and it's difficult to accommodate," Wittmann said.
Even some of the president's most ardent supporters stop short of predicting sweeping victories. Congress loves to talk about bold action but more often than not settles for incremental change, according to some lawmakers, scholars and legislative strategists.
The important thing is that big problems are being addressed, said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who has disagreed with the administration on foreign policy but supports most of the president's domestic initiatives. Even if Bush fails, "he will get credit down the road" for proposing bold action, Hagel said. Although there are political risks in what Bush is proposing, "the risks are higher if you do nothing," he added.
To a far greater extent than his tax and education proposals four years ago, Bush's second-term initiatives go to the heart of causes that divide conservatives, moderates and liberals; divide key constituencies in the president's party; and energize the Democratic opposition, lawmakers and independent analysts said.
Moreover, with congressional elections looming in 2006 and with Bush's powers waning toward the end of his term in 2008, many lawmakers and scholars believe Bush has 18 months, at best, to get his most politically sensitive proposals, including Social Security changes, passed. All the big issues require lengthy hearings and debate, and "the legislative clock doesn't work in the president's favor," said Ross K. Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University.
Relations between the two parties and various ideological factions in Congress were difficult during Bush's first term, creating an inauspicious landscape for second-term initiatives that appear likely to create even more friction.
Because it Bush's agenda is so far-reaching, it carries the seeds of its own destruction, said Ralph G. Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way. "The overall Bush agenda is quite simple: to radically restructure the government. It is so radical that there is a good chance that moderate Republicans and traditional conservatives will join the Democrats to defeat it."
Although Bush appears to face the greatest risks, Democrats may also be in for a rough ride as they attempt to exercise effective opposition without appearing to be obstructionist.
"I would not want to be the senator or congressman who casts a vote against reforming Social Security in a way that saves it," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). And, "How would you like to be the person who argues for the current tax code?" he asked.
Bush begins with bigger Republican majorities than he had four years ago: majorities of 55 to 44 in the Senate and 232 to 202 in the House, with two Democratic-leaning independents, one in each chamber. By contrast, Bush began his first year in office with an evenly divided Senate that came under the control of Democrats within a few months and a majority of only six seats in the House.
The larger majorities give him a new edge, especially in the Senate, where some of his first-term initiatives were blocked or whittled back. Republicans are closer to the 60 votes needed to cut off Democratic filibusters but remain five short, requiring at least some bipartisan deal-making to pass major initiatives.
But there are Republicans in both chambers who have misgivings about where Bush appears to be headed on Social Security and taxes, and his proposals to offer the opportunity for legal status to millions of undocumented workers get a chilly response from Republicans who prefer to focus on curbing illegal immigration. Bush's proposal to crack down on medical malpractice lawsuits faces an uphill struggle in the Senate, although it may be easier to change the rules for class-action lawsuits. Both lawsuit proposals are slated for early action.
While Congress is likely to give Bush the funds he wants for Iraq and for tsunami relief, concern over persistently high budget deficits -- among many Republicans, as well as Democrats -- will almost certainly influence debate over other issues.
On Social Security, for instance, Graham is proposing to raise the payroll tax for wealthier workers to help defray the huge transition cost of moving to a new system. Bush's vow to curb spending in hopes of halving the deficit in five years is likely to create pain back home for lawmakers from both parties.
Bush has signaled in a variety of ways that he understands the risks. White House aides and some GOP lawmakers have said his tax proposals are likely to be put off until next year and may come in the form of incremental change instead of wholesale restructuring. And the White House and its allies, faced with opposition from the AARP, plan a massive sales effort to build public as well as congressional support for the president's Social Security plans.