By Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 3, 2007
As lawmakers head for a month-long recess tomorrow, Congress and the White House are embroiled in confrontations on multiple fronts, signaling the potential for widespread gridlock when they return in September on the war, the budget and issues such as health care and education.
Despite promises of bipartisanship, both sides are drawing sharp lines over big bills involving farm policy, energy and domestic spending. Last night, the Senate, with bipartisan support, approved a $35 billion expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, shrugging aside a veto threat from President Bush. With 18 Republicans voting against the president, the 68 to 31 vote provided a veto-proof majority. On an 83 to 14 vote, the Senate also sent Bush a new ethics bill that is tough on lobbyists but weaker on one of the president's top priorities, exposing pork-barrel spending.
The House approved yesterday the latest Iraq bill to come under a veto threat, a measure requiring rests for combat troops of at least the length of their previous deployment before they are sent back into battle. The 229 to 194 vote included six Republicans in the majority. Three other wavering Republicans voted present.
To be sure, Democratic leaders have compromised, even on core party issues such as labor organizing and wiretapping. They dropped the most confrontational provisions from a major homeland security bill that Bush is expected to sign today, eliminating a measure to allow airport screeners to unionize. And they are cooperating with the administration on a last-minute update of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act over the objections of liberal senators such as Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.).
But, overall, messages from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have largely been tough and uncompromising.
Bush taunted Democrats yesterday for not passing the annual spending bills, even though the next fiscal year will not begin until October. He hosted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her husband at a private dinner at the White House on Tuesday, yet Bush took a veiled shot at her in the Rose Garden yesterday over her comment this week that the Democrats' proposal to spend $22 billion more on domestic programs than what the White House wants amounts to a "very small difference."
"Only in Washington can $22 billion be called a very small difference," Bush said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) responded, "He must be in the Twilight Zone."
It is not just Democrats who are in a fighting mood over the president's fiscal posture. A new veto threat for a $21 billion water projects bill -- 20 percent of which would be used to rebuild Louisiana -- prompted Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) to vow to "work enthusiastically" for a veto override.
"I'm afraid the promise the president made to the nation in Jackson Square [to rebuild New Orleans] comes across as hollow today," Vitter said this week.
With other key elements of their agenda blocked, Bush and his advisers believe they can shore up their poor standing in public approval polls by claiming the mantle of fiscal conservatism, while Democrats are practically daring the president to veto measures that would expand what they consider to be popular government initiatives.
Even the catastrophic bridge collapse in Minnesota gave Democratic leaders an opening to confront Bush on his fiscal austerity. They challenged the president yesterday to launch a major initiative to address the nation's aging infrastructure, including bridges, dams and sewer systems.
"Present us with what needs to be done, not some arbitrary figure," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said.
Democratic leaders have clearly staked out their ground on Iraq in preparation for their return to the debate on that issue next month. "The confrontation is going to be historic in September," said Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who plans to put binding troop withdrawal language on a military spending bill.
But behind such bravado, some Democrats have shown a willingness to compromise. A pattern has emerged: Congress, especially the House, produces legislation almost designed to anger the White House, but, in the end, the president signs a bill he can live with. That began with the war funding bill earlier this year, but it picked up steam last week with the measure to institute the homeland security recommendations of the commission that investigated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Democratic leadership is working closely with the administration's director of national intelligence to update the law governing electronic surveillance, over the opposition of party activists.
A senior House leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters, said no one wants confrontation on such a politically sensitive issue. Even the expected showdown over spending this fall may not live up to its billing, he said.
"The guys at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue are not afraid of being confrontational, being unreasonable, but, at the end of the day, somebody in Washington has to be the adult and get things done," said Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), who helped negotiate the homeland security bill.
White House officials bristle at the suggestion that they are trying to pick fights with Congress. When Democrats complained about a proposed line in last Saturday's presidential radio address -- in which Bush was to say that every day Congress puts off reform of wiretapping laws increases the danger to the nation -- the White House took it out.
But the officials say Democrats are routinely trying to push beyond reasonable limits. Negotiations over the farm bill were proceeding well, they say, until Democrats slipped in a last-minute provision on taxing the profits on foreign corporations to offset new spending on food stamps and nutrition.
Yet White House officials make little effort to deny that they are taking an especially hard line on spending this year compared with years past, and that they think it will pay off politically -- especially in keeping grumbling conservatives in the fold. They also see Congress-bashing as a potentially useful political tool.
With Bush's approval ratings at historic lows, Democrats relish the fight. Pelosi released a long list of the programs that Bush wants to cut and that Democrats want to restore, including those involving vocational and special education, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rural health, heating and housing assistance for low-income people, and grants for local law enforcement.
"When they say 'Take it or leave it,' as they do on many issues, there's no chance for compromise," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "When they're willing to work with us, we can make progress."