President Bush's domestic agenda is taking a wartime beating in Congress, often from fellow Republicans, as lawmakers target his tax cut, faith-based initiative and energy plans.
With Bush focused mostly on the war in Iraq, a small but crucial number of GOP lawmakers has broken ranks and dealt significant blows to several of his highest-profile policies. The president's $726 billion tax cut proposal has been sliced in half, his plan for oil drilling in Alaska defeated, his faith-based plan stripped to its bare bones and his cap on medical malpractice lawsuit damages put on life support.
The war has largely overshadowed the unusual string of setbacks for Bush, who lost few congressional battles in his first two years in office. But the recent events, occurring mainly in the Senate, underscore the unease that some Republicans and most Democrats feel toward his ambitious domestic plans for a nation facing a war and deep deficits.
To be sure, Bush remains extraordinarily popular with congressional Republicans and is likely to win backing for a rare wartime tax cut, albeit smaller and perhaps markedly different than the one he proposed in January. In an interview last week, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) suggested that the president's proposed elimination of the tax on stock dividends -- the White House's top domestic priority -- soon may be dropped or cut in half.
Meanwhile, some top Republicans such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) are upset that Bush is demanding unusual flexibility in spending most of the $75 billion appropriation he has requested for war expenses. Some Republicans also plan to push for more homeland security spending than Bush wants.
On the war front, the president appears likely to get practically all the money he has requested, with a few strings attached. But on the domestic front, Bush recently has suffered a series of stinging blows from Democrats and Republicans alike that are likely to reverberate through the next few months of congressional action.
One reason is the inability of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and top White House officials to keep key moderate GOP senators from defecting on pivotal votes. Even appeals to Republicans' patriotism have failed to win backing for the president. Republicans hold a 51 to 49 Senate majority.
Frist, who has devoted much of the year unsuccessfully pushing for the Senate confirmation of Bush judicial nominee Miguel Estrada, this month was unable to push through two of the president's top priorities -- a 10-year, $726 billion tax cut, and the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas exploration.
The ANWR drilling proposal, which has been debated for years, was always considered an uphill fight in the Senate. Nonetheless, GOP leadership aides bragged as recently as two weeks ago that they were within a vote or two of a Senate victory. But Frist and his allies failed to snag the all-important Republicans they needed, including freshman Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon.
Some Republicans privately said they wish Frist would take a harder line with defectors, but Coleman said the majority leader spent more time listening than lecturing him. "You don't walk away with red wrists or sore elbows," Coleman said of showdowns with the party leader.
Coleman, who benefited greatly from Bush's campaign appearances in his tough campaign last fall, said Bush is not using "strong-arm" tactics to change his mind. Indeed, several Republicans said Bush has paid little attention to events on Capitol Hill since the war began.
Last week, the Senate reversed course when three GOP defectors joined Democrats to slice in half Bush's tax cut package. Republicans Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and George V. Voinovich (Ohio) unexpectedly teamed with a united Democratic caucus to chop the Bush plan to $350 billion over 10 years. "Because our margin is so thin, every vote can make a difference," Snowe said.
Snowe, a Finance Committee member, said that, despite White House lobbying, she will hold firm at $350 billion, which would doom the proposed dividend-tax elimination. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that the public supports her position: 65 percent favor cutting Bush's tax cut in half to pay for the war, shore up Social Security and shrink the deficit.
Bush has vowed to fight for a much bigger tax cut when the House and Senate meet this week, but a senior administration official predicted that last week's Senate vote will trim at least $200 billion from the original proposal when all is said and done. One White House official said Bush will be lucky to walk away with $500 billion in total tax cuts, including a 50 percent reduction in the dividend tax.
The setbacks are unusual for Bush, who used a combination of charm, promises and outright bullying to pass most of his agenda through Congress in 2001 and 2002. He overcame stiff opposition to pass his $1.3 trillion tax cut in 2001 and prevailed in budget fights and in quests for more power to conduct the war on terrorism.
In an interview Friday, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer urged patience in judging Bush's record with Congress. "The Hill continues to be narrowly divided," he said, "and no matter what's happening in the war, nothing is easy on the Hill. It's too early to judge the final outcome of the tax bill and the budget resolution."
Frist is perhaps Bush's closest friend in Congress, and many Republicans thought his recent rise to majority leader would put the president in an even stronger position to hold liberal Republicans and independent-minded senators in line. The war, many assumed, would further inspire GOP allegiance. Thus far, it has not, and Capitol insiders are speculating on the reasons.
Some contend that Bush has been hampered by the perception that Frist is too close to him. After Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was forced out as majority leader, Bush helped Frist succeed him. Some GOP members say Frist may be eager to prove that he is his own man, and therefore does not want to come down too hard on wayward senators.
"He has had political challenges within his own party as a result of how messy the process was that propelled him to the leadership post," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). "He has his hands full."
Bush also faces the reality that with a two-seat Senate margin, the most controversial elements of his agenda will not fly.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) on Thursday announced that he was dramatically scaling back the president's "faith-based" initiative to win bipartisan passage of tax breaks for charitable giving. Bush wants to allow churches, synagogues and mosques to use federal money in providing social services such as drug treatment programs. To do so, Bush has fought for more than two years to allow federal funds to flow to religious groups even if, when hiring and firing, they discriminate against people who do not share their religious beliefs. An example: a Christian church that believes homosexuality is a sin could reject a gay job applicant.
Santorum, weary of the Senate impasse, has decided to drop that provision from the Senate "faith-based" plan. "I would have liked to have gotten the whole enchilada," Santorum said, "but in the United States Senate this year, you're lucky to get anything, and I'll take anything."
Meanwhile, Bush's proposal to place a $250,000 cap on jury awards for noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, in medical malpractice cases has stalled in Congress. Frist was working with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on changing the plan by doubling the cap in most cases, and quadrupling it in extreme cases. But Feinstein backed away from the deal after physicians groups objected to it.