Recent Bush Victories Smell of Compromise

President Bush, with first lady Laura Bush, has less than seven months left in office.
President Bush, with first lady Laura Bush, has less than seven months left in office. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 13, 2008

The decider has become the compromiser.

President Bush has racked up a series of significant political victories in recent weeks, on surveillance reform, war funding and an international agreement on global warming, but only after engaging in the kind of conciliation with opponents that his administration has often avoided.

With less than seven months left in office, Bush is embracing such compromises in part because he has to. Faced with persistently low public approval ratings, a Democratic Congress and wavering support among Republicans, he and his aides have given ground on key issues to accomplish broader legislative and diplomatic goals, according to administration officials, legislative aides and political experts.

"To get something done or to get what you want or most of what you want, you've got to compromise," said Nicholas E. Calio, who served as Bush's first legislative affairs director. "The president and the White House are very focused on getting things done, and they don't abide the notion that he's a lame duck."

Bush's willingness to compromise remains limited, and he has threatened to veto several key measures winding through Congress, from Medicare payments to housing reform. Yet any hint of accommodation is notable for a president who has often pursued a confrontational strategy with Congress -- even when it was in GOP hands -- and who has stood behind an unpopular war and go-it-alone policies abroad.

"There hasn't been wholesale change, but there has been definite movement toward compromise," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "What you're seeing is a willingness to bend some when you're getting a broader objective. On other things, you finesse it."

Two weeks ago, for example, Bush signed a $162 billion spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he hailed as a product of bipartisan cooperation. But the final legislation was far more expensive than Bush had said he would accept, and it included expanded G.I. Bill college benefits and other provisions that he had opposed.

A new surveillance bill signed into law Thursday also marked a significant victory for Bush, largely because the White House won legal immunity for telecommunications firms that helped in eavesdropping after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Yet even there, the compromise legislation included reforms that the administration had initially opposed, including language making clear that the measure is the exclusive legal authority for government spying. The changes allowed the bill to easily overcome opposition from Democratic leaders and civil liberties groups.

Bush's conciliatory mood extended to the Group of Eight summit last week in Japan, where the United States for the first time joined the other major industrialized countries in agreeing to try to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Although environmental groups said the deal lacked vital specifics, it marked a long journey for a U.S. president who came to office questioning the science of climate change.

Democrats on Capitol Hill said these and other signs of accommodation from the White House have sprung largely from political and legislative necessity. Indeed, Democrats point out that in a growing number of key votes, Republicans have simply ignored Bush's veto threats and sided with Democrats.

"The closer we get to the election, the more we're going to see them breaking from the White House," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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