By Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 25, 2008
As they unveiled a $150 billion package of tax breaks for consumers and businesses yesterday, Republicans and Democrats hoped to rescue not only a troubled economy but also a government that increasingly has seemed as if it could not get anything done.
President Bush hailed "the kind of cooperation that some predicted was not possible here in Washington." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) used the words "bipartisan" and "bipartisanship" 10 times in a brief appearance. "Many Americans believe that Washington is broken," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "But I think this agreement, and I hope that this agreement, will show the American people that we can fix it."
The agreement on a stimulus package represented the first time since divided government returned to Washington a year ago that the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue sheathed their swords and came together on a major initiative without any bloodletting first. But the White House and House leaders face two critical questions now: Can they make it stick in a balky Senate? And can they extend this moment of cooperation, or is it a one-time deal in the face of economic and political desperation?
"It shows what's possible when the two parties have more to lose for not acting," said former White House counselor Dan Bartlett, a longtime adviser to Bush. "Just think of all that could get done through the art of compromise if only both parties saw it in their own interests to act."
Steve Elmendorf, who was chief of staff to former House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), agreed that both sides see the deal in their self-interest as well as the national interest, but he cautioned that it may not be easy to replicate. "You have a perfect storm here of short-term challenges to do something that you probably won't get on other issues," he said.
The White House and Congress spent most of 2007 at loggerheads over the Iraq war, children's health insurance and immigration. Only at the end of the year, after veto threats and harsh rhetoric, did Bush and lawmakers come together on a spending package and energy legislation. Bush vetoed seven bills last year and staged only one signing ceremony with Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
Both sides saw their public standing suffer, and the heightened anxiety over the economy threatens further erosion. By December, 32 percent of Americans approved of the way Congress was doing its job, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, down from 43 percent when Democrats took over in January 2007. And by this month, Bush's approval rating had slipped to 32 percent, the worst of his presidency.
"They're sick and tired of the bickering, and they want to see us get some things done," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.).
But that may not be enough to hold yesterday's agreement together, as senators signaled they may rework it. "They negotiated with one side of the Congress and found agreement," said former congressman Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.). "The question is what happens when you go to the other side. I've seen these things come apart."
Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., who brokered the deal with Pelosi and Boehner, headed to the Senate after the announcement to begin working the other side. White House officials expressed irritation because Reid had voluntarily deferred to Pelosi in the negotiations, and they warned that he should stick by the agreement. "We reached a bipartisan deal that can move quickly," said one White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more blunt. "It would be a mistake for Democratic senators to blow that up."
Still, officials on both sides suggested that the senators may make noise for political purposes without really undercutting the agreement. And if the deal does hold, some harbor hope that it could be a model as Bush moves into his final year in office. Neither side expects to be able to work with the other on tough issues such as immigration and Social Security, and Iraq will continue to divide the two parties. The accelerating presidential campaign also makes it more difficult to reach across party lines.
But the White House sees a window of opportunity through spring, before the campaign heads toward the nominating conventions and the general election. Some likened the moment to the summer of 1996, when President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress teamed up for a burst of pre-election legislation such as changes in welfare after 18 months of bitter fighting.
Bush plans in his State of the Union address Monday to outline several areas in which he hopes to work with Congress, including trade and veterans' health care. And some aides think they could find common ground on warrantless surveillance and children's health care. The economic deal showed what is possible. "This is the first example of it," said a senior administration official. "I don't think it will be the last."