Texas Gov. George W. Bush has told Republican congressional leaders he is not turning his back on them but will continue "to state my opinions" whenever he disagrees with his party's majority on Capitol Hill.
Bush, the leader in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, was unabashed during an interview last week in his Texas capitol office about his run-in with House GOP leaders over their plans to save money by delaying Treasury payments to low-income families and his remark that he didn't "think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor."
The leadership dropped the idea but not before House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a fellow Texan, said, "It's obvious the governor's got a lot to learn about Congress."
Since then, Bush said he has talked to DeLay, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.). "We can still be friends and have disagreements on issues," he said.
As Democrats step up their criticism of the record the GOP majority is writing on Capitol Hill, Bush clearly is signaling that he wants to remove himself from the line of fire. The governor repeatedly emphasized that he will look at issues from the perspective of a presidential candidate who has sought support from Democrats in the Texas legislature, not from the stance of party leaders locked in combat with President Clinton. Just as candidate Clinton did in 1992, Bush is seeking to be judged as a fresh face on the national scene, not a clone of his fellow partisans in Washington.
Asked what he had learned from the incident that might help him if he became president, Bush said: "I learned it's important to speak my mind clearly so people can understand where the next president will be coming from [and] what my perspective is."
Looking ahead, Bush said, "I'm confident there'll be times when I'll agree with the decisions they [congressional Republicans] make and confident there'll be times when I disagree."
The interview with Bush was one of a number The Washington Post is doing with major presidential candidates, examining their views on executive-congressional relations. Throughout the last four decades, managing that relationship has been one of the most daunting challenges for every president.
Signaling his intention to chart his own course, Bush said, "There's no coordination and there shouldn't be coordination between a candidate who hasn't even earned his party's nomination and the Congress. . . . My attitude is, they've got issues to deal with and they must deal with those issues in the best way they know how, and they should not allow my campaign to get in the way of doing that. . . . These are duly elected officials, and they've been dealt a hand with a president who they are at odds with, and they've got to figure out how to resolve budget difficulties and other issues."
Bush said that if he becomes the nominee, "I intend to work hard" to elect a Republican Congress. "I know that in order to get an agenda through Congress, there have to be cordial relationships. But everybody's not going to agree 100 percent of the time."
Bush said whoever is elected in 2000 will find that a challenge, because "I think the degree of distrust is about as high as it's been in modern history. . . . The relationship between the White House and the Congress is an embittered relationship."
Whereas his father, former president George Bush, lost many battles with Congress because of what the governor called the "partisanship" of people such as then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), the current gridlock is more "personal," he said.
Bush faulted Clinton for failing to support bipartisan recommendations on Medicare reform that emerged this year from a commission led by Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) and Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). "I thought it was a missed opportunity for him to bring both parties together to achieve a common objective," he said.
Emphasizing "personal trust" as an ingredient in dealing with legislators, Bush acknowledged that if elected, he would have no personal relationship to draw on with Democratic leaders of Congress, but said he was expanding his contacts on the GOP side as he campaigned with House and Senate Republicans who have endorsed his candidacy. He singled out Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) as someone who would be "a very important player" if Bush becomes president, and also mentioned Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) and Reps. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr. (R-Miss.) as key allies in his campaign.
Asked about DeLay's comment that he had "a lot to learn about Congress," Bush said five years of dealing with the Texas legislature -- with Democrats in control of the house and Democrats and Republicans alternating in the senate majority -- have given him "a pretty good understanding of how appropriators and legislators think."
"It actually requires deftness of touch to be able to lead," he said. "The first step is obviously to have a trustworthy relationship," something he quickly forged with the Democratic House speaker in Texas and with the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, the Democratic powerhouse on the Senate side. "They didn't agree with me all the time," Bush said, "but we weren't out to embarrass each other."
The second key, he said, is to "spend [political] capital wisely" by narrowing and clearly defining the agenda. "A president who has an extremely extensive agenda is likely to get little done. A president who focuses earned capital on a few items that have significant impact is a president who can lead the Congress."
While acknowledging that "national Democrats will be a lot more liberal than many of the Democrats inside the [capitol] building here" in Austin, Bush said he would use as his model President Ronald Reagan's success in "reaching out to a group of Democrats and cobbling coalitions together" to pass his budget and tax and defense bills in 1981 and 1982. "The president spent his capital wisely and was able to bring the mandate of the people into the halls of Congress and pass his measures through a Democratic House and a Republican Senate," he said.
Bush said he has made his priorities clear -- reexamining defense strategy and boosting military spending, reforming Social Security and Medicare, redirecting federal education policy and cutting taxes. If he wins, he said, he would go to Congress and say, "Here's what I was elected to do and I expect you to -- I hope you will -- support me on these measures. After all, the people spoke loud and clear."
The Candidates and Congress
Every recent president has found one of his most difficult challenges lies in managing his relationship with Congress. The Washington Post is interviewing the leading presidential candidates to hear their ideas for dealing with this part of the job.
Bush in His Own Words
Q: What did you learn from watching the decline in your father's relations with Congress?
A: That sometimes politics stands in the way of good policy. One of the lines I've oftentimes used here in Texas is to say, 'There's a time for politics, and there's a time for policy.' I try to put aside politics inside the capitol here, and I think people have appreciated that.
Q: You've talked about having a focused agenda. What would be the openers in a Bush administration?
A: Increasing military spending, but that is going to require a top-down review to make sure there's a long-term strategy in place to guide the spending. The education reforms I've laid out. Entitlement reform--meaning Social Security and Medicare. And tax cuts. Those will be the top four priorities.
Q: And do you see those as issues where you might be able to get support across party lines?
A: I hope so. First, I must speak plainly enough (in the campaign) so people understand if we elect George Bush, this is where he intends to spend his capital. And I hope the voters speak loudly enough so that members of both parties hear the call of the people for reform.
Q: Are there personal relationships with members of Congress that you could draw on if you became president?
A: I'm beginning to develop good relationships with different congressmen and senators as I campaign with them....I come from a state with a big delegation and I know all the members. Phil Gramm (the senior senator from Texas) is a friend and someone I've gotten to know well as we campaigned together over several election cycles. Phil's a big thinker. And he's going to be a very important player when it comes to reforming entitlements. He's got a capacity to understand, grasp and explain very complex issues. I suspect that should I become president, he'll be somebody I'd be able to rely upon and count on.
Q: Have you gotten to know any of the Democrats on Capitol Hill either socially or professionally?
A: I've been up to Washington and held Texas delegation meetings. But not (House Minority Leader Dick) Gephardt. No, I don't know their leadership.
Q: Not at all?
A: No, sir. Well, I know John Breaux (the senior senator from Louisiana). Through the famous Alfalfa Club (a Washington social group). John McCain, John Breaux and I were sworn in the same year at the Alfalfa Club.