A July 31 article about GOP legislative action incorrectly described the highway authorization bill as an appropriations bill. The article also misstated the amount included in the bill for Don Young's Way, a bridge in Alaska; the amount was $231 million, not $200 million. (Published 8/6/2005)
Shackled for months by a familiar brand of Washington gridlock, President Bush and the Republican leaders in Congress last week suddenly found a key. A long-stalled energy bill, an international trade accord and a massive highway appropriations measure all moved to passage -- handing big victories to business interests and quieting talk that a second-term president was bereft of influence.
This surprising midsummer rush of legislating made clear that the reality of Washington's current balance of power is more complicated than surface appearances. On the most highly charged ideological issues -- the proposed restructuring of Social Security, chief among them -- a unified Democratic opposition has stymied Bush, creating an impression of GOP impotence. On less partisan measures backed by powerful economic interests, Republicans have benefited from enough Democratic support to advance their agenda in expensive and far-reaching ways.
This show of clout came even as the capital's top figures continue to suffer from diverse political problems. Bush's job-approval ratings are below 50 percent and near his personal low, and several of his top advisers are under investigation in the CIA leak case. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas is buffeted by controversies over his relationships with lobbyists; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee has faced catcalls over what critics have called a bumbling style.
All three now have an answer to those who question their effectiveness. They beat back challenges from liberal Democrats and some of their own members to pass the most expensive highway and transit bill in history, an energy measure loaded with tax breaks for oil and gas companies, and a first-ever trade pact with Central America, known as CAFTA. They are also on the cusp of protecting gun manufacturers from lawsuits.
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who is running for reelection in 2006 in a state Bush won twice, said the president and congressional Republicans made a wise calculation to jettison "a lot of side show things" to home in on "the bread-and-butter" economic concerns this week.
Conrad voted with the GOP this week on the energy, gun and highway bills. Earlier this year, he similarly supported the White House and business interests on measures that revised laws governing bankruptcy and class-action lawsuits.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), whose votes matched Conrad's on those measures, noted a timeless Washington truth: It is easier to pass highway and energy bills because they can be loaded with enough pork-barrel projects to attract a majority.
"There's more that will unite you than will divide you, as long as you realize there are projects in Nebraska and projects in Kansas and New York and what have you," Nelson said.
But the same Democrats who are open to persuasion on economic issues have refused to budge on issues they see as more partisan in nature. In addition to actions on Social Security, Bush made a judgment immediately after his reelection not to push his planned constitutional ban on gay marriage, and he is planning to resort to a recess appointment to install John R. Bolton as his ambassador to the United Nations.
On these issues, Nelson said, "The lines are more clearly drawn, and there's very little room to maneuver."
On this week's legislation, all the maneuvering came at a cost. The energy and transportation bills were well-marbled with tax breaks and subsidies for business. Some economic conservatives, including the Wall Street Journal editorial page, accused Bush and Republicans of spending way too much to win over the Democrats.
Still, Allan J. Lichtman, a professor of political history at American University, said that while the country has been preoccupied with the "flash and show" over social issues, Republicans are reshaping the policy landscape in favor of a certain brand of big-spending conservatism. "It's an absolutely remarkable performance by Republicans," he said.
The changes, he said, will be felt over time by average Americans in concrete ways. The legislation enacted at Bush's urging this year, for instance, makes it harder for individuals to wipe away their debts through bankruptcy or to join with others to sue businesses for faulty products or services. The transportation bill will pay for roads, bridges, bike paths in communities and create tens of thousands of jobs -- at a cost of $286 billion over six years.
The measure includes pet projects requested by individual members that sometimes carry the lawmaker's name -- such as a $200 million plan for a bridge renamed "Don Young's Way," after the Alaska GOP congressman who championed it. Bush resisted congressional efforts to expand the bill to $375 billion or larger, but he, DeLay and Frist used the projects in the bill to help win votes for other measures, such as CAFTA.
DeLay, who faces what is expected to be a tough reelection fight next year, was himself a beneficiary: He tucked millions of dollars for his district into the energy and transportation bills.
The president still faces many challenges to his agenda, including tepid support at best, even among Republicans, for his plan to restructure Social Security, reform the immigration system and extend the No Child Left Behind law to high schools. But even many Democrats acknowledge Bush is likely to benefit politically from this week's flurry of activity.
Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) boasted that "the legislative logjam we've experienced over a number of years has been broken."
But Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said that last week's breakthroughs were less the result of shrewd parliamentary maneuvering than of simple arithmetic: GOP majorities in the House and the Senate, combined with a Republican in the White House. "Elections matter," Wyden said. "When you control all three branches of government, you've got a lot to work with to drive your agenda."