By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007
President Bush declared yesterday that he remains "relevant" despite his political troubles, and he derided Democrats for running a do-nothing Congress that has failed to address critical domestic, economic and security issues in the nine months since they took control of Capitol Hill.
Trying to turn the tables on his adversaries, Bush lashed out at lawmakers for stalling housing and education initiatives, trade agreements, and judicial nominations, and for not having passed any of 12 annual spending bills more than two weeks into the new fiscal year. "Congress has little to show for all the time that has gone by," he said during a White House news conference.
Bush's assault on Democratic leaders during the 47-minute session reflected a broader attempt by the White House to go on the offensive at a time when polls show that the public has soured on Congress just as it has on the president. Stuck with the lowest approval ratings of his presidency with just 15 months left in office, Bush presented himself as still in command of the Washington agenda and rejected the suggestion that he has grown "increasingly irrelevant," as a reporter put it in a question.
"Quite the contrary," he said. "I've never felt more engaged and more capable of helping people recognize . . . that there's a lot of unfinished business." Defending his rejection of a popular children's health program expansion, Bush said his veto power gives him leverage. "That's one way to ensure that I am relevant," he said. "That's one way to ensure that I am in the process. And I intend to use the veto."
His reprimand of Congress drew a scathing response from Democrats. "I appreciate that the man who has managed Iraq so well is going to give us a lecture about management," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.). "The man who gave us Katrina is going to tell us how to manage?"
Bush's performance in some ways echoed one by Emanuel's former boss, President Bill Clinton, who, several months after the opposition Republicans took over Congress in 1995, declared that "the Constitution gives me relevance." Clinton, too, played off an increasingly unpopular Congress and used his veto power to exert influence, most notably by twice rejecting an overhaul of the welfare system until lawmakers passed a version more to his liking.
What seems unclear is whether Bush wants compromise or confrontation. Aides have talked enthusiastically about vetoing spending bills to reestablish his credentials as a fiscal conservative with a party base alienated by the growth in government on his watch. Senior Senate Republicans have complained that the White House showed no genuine interest in finding accord on the children's health-care bill that he vetoed.
But Bush said yesterday that he is "confident we can work out our differences" on the State Children's Health Insurance Program and that he wants to find "common ground" on other legislation. The House appears unlikely to overturn Bush's veto of the children's health bill today, after which the president said his staff can broker a deal with lawmakers.
Bush had proposed a 20 percent increase in funding for the program, which budget analysts said would be inadequate to cover even the children currently insured. The vetoed bill would have pumped an extra $35 billion into the program over five years, more than doubling the funding, to increase the number of people covered from 6.6 million to 10 million. Bush calls that a step toward socialized medicine because it would cover many families that now have private insurance.
Still, Bush said during the news conference that he wants to find a way to extend the program to an additional 500,000 children who are currently eligible but are not receiving coverage. "If putting poor children first requires more than the 20 percent increase in funding I proposed," he said, "we'll work with Congress to find the money we need."
While Bush and the Democrats fight it out in public, the Republican rank and file have grown increasingly demoralized. Eighteen Republicans in the Senate and 45 in the House abandoned the White House on the children's health bill, and lawmakers expect even more to vote to override his promised veto of a water projects bill as soon as next week.
As Republicans lament life in the minority, many are giving up. Nearly a dozen Republicans in the House and five in the Senate have announced their intention to retire next year. Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that the party should hold many of those seats, but that some will be tough, such as that of Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio). "If Deborah would change her mind, I'd be the happiest guy in the world," he said.
But White House officials contend that their political fortunes have begun to improve. While Bush's poll numbers remain stagnant, aides note that he has successfully fought off congressional efforts to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq and has pushed Congress into passing temporary legislation authorizing his controversial surveillance program aimed at terrorists. The deficit has come down and North Korea is moving to dismantle its nuclear program, they note, and the president has advanced plans to deal with everything from subprime mortgages to airline delays.
Bush yesterday went so far as to assert that Washington is coming together on Iraq, a notion that many Democrats would hardly agree with even though they have not forced a change in strategy. "We're finding common ground on Iraq," he said. "I recognize there are people [in] Congress that say we shouldn't have been there in the first place. But it sounds to me as if the debate has shifted."
He likewise suggested that the dynamics on the ground in Iraq have changed, although he was careful not to claim victory against al-Qaeda in Iraq, as some in the military want to do. "Yeah, we've hurt them bad in Iraq," he said. "We've hurt them bad elsewhere." But he said "al-Qaeda is still dangerous." He brushed off criticism from retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, his former top commander in Iraq, who last week assailed the "catastrophically flawed" war plan and the "incompetent strategic leadership" of national leaders.
As he ticked off stalled domestic measures, Bush rejected any suggestion that he bears responsibility for the growing gridlock given his many veto threats. He placed the blame squarely on Democrats. "I think it is their fault that bills aren't moving, yeah," he said. "I'm not part of the legislative branch. All I can do is ask them to move bills. It's up to the leaders to move the bills. And, you bet, I'm going to put veto threats out."
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.