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Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 2001 / 24 Tishrei, 5762

Fred Barnes

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George W. Bush, Bipartisan : On Capitol Hill, the Dems are happy, the GOP anxious -- AS HE LEFT A CROWDED HOUSE FLOOR after his speech to Congress on September 20, George Bush didn't notice Richard Gephardt at first. But when the president glanced back, he spotted the House Democratic leader and walked over to greet him. Bush cuffed his hand behind Gephardt's neck and gave him an emotional hug. A week later, he took Gephardt with him aboard Air Force One for a trip to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to announce new airport security measures. On the way back to Washington, they talked, one on one, for 90 minutes. A White House aide said he doubted Gephardt had ever had a session like that with President Clinton. And a House Republican said, somewhat warily, that the GOP president and the Democratic leader had bonded.

This is what Bush means by bipartisanship: keeping the opposition on board as the war against terrorism is pursued. It's a politically delicate task, and Bush has performed it ably. Prior to September 11, he had "zero relationship" with Gephardt, according to a Democratic official. Now they're in frequent contact. The same is true with Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. There's a "genuine relationship that didn't exist before," says a Daschle adviser. Bush isn't quite as chummy with Daschle as he is with Gephardt, but for the first two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon he talked to Daschle daily.

And the meetings at the White House with Bush and the party of four from Capitol Hill--Daschle, Gephardt, plus Republican leaders Trent Lott and Denny Hastert--have gone swimmingly.

So all would seem well. Republicans and Democrats are united behind Bush in the war effort. This produced unusually quick action on three relevant measures that otherwise might have become bogged down in congressional debate. Least controversial was the "use of force" resolution authorizing Bush to go to war against Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network. That was followed by the budget deal, which boosted discretionary spending for 2002 by $25 billion more than Bush had sought earlier, but also shut down Democratic senator Teddy Kennedy's bid to lard the budget with billions more for education. The third was the $15 billion bailout of the airlines. Despite a threat by airlines to ground their planes, this legislation would have been wrangled over for days and might not have passed at all, except for Bush's deftness in getting the four congressional leaders to sign on. Each of them--and especially Gephardt--caught flak from his caucus for going along. Gephardt was lambasted for not insisting the bailout include laid-off airline employees.

Indeed Bush has skillfully courted Democrats. But for many Republicans, Bush's emphasis on bipartisanship and "what we will do together" means caving to Gephardt and Daschle. It didn't happen on the counter-terrorism bill. Attorney General John Ashcroft got most of what he asked for, which suggests he should have asked for stronger measures. But on legislation to spark the economy and strengthen airline security, the White House has bent over backwards to accommodate Democrats. This has upset not only conservative backbenchers, but also Lott and House majority leader Dick Armey and whip Tom DeLay. Hastert, as House speaker, is more serene. The dissidents can only grouse. Given the circumstances--a war, a popular Republican president--a GOP revolt in Congress is unthinkable. In fact, Republicans who fear the stimulus package won't work say they must vote for it anyway--as their patriotic duty.

Nor are they free to criticize the president openly. Armey says that if he attacked Bush in a town meeting in his Texas district, his constituents "would take my head off." So he goes no further than offering public advice to Bush. "I don't think the president wants to leverage his high standing with the American people to get a growth package," he told me. "Right now he doesn't have that disposition. I think he should." If he pushed, Bush could get a truly stimulative package of tax cuts. But the president is leery of "ruffling our non-partisan feathers." Armey isn't. He says Democrats should be barred from loading the stimulus package with "social-political" policies, like extended unemployment benefits that have "no growth impact."

Outsiders are free to jump on Bush. Steve Moore, president of the Club for Growth, says the White House mistakenly thinks it will be judged on "whether they can put a stimulus package together, not on whether it works." Worse, Bush is looking to stimulate consumer demand when the problem is an "investment drought," Moore says. No one at the White House pressed for a cut in the capital gains rate, and the bid by economic coordinator Larry Lindsey to trim the corporate income tax rate was quickly abandoned. The White House was not oblivious to the GOP unrest. Republicans were told the stimulus package would go through the House Ways and Means Committee and they could try to change it there. And Bush appeared in the Rose Garden last Friday to promote a $60 billion-plus package that was all tax cuts and no spending. "We ought to stimulate demand by accelerating the marginal tax cuts that we've passed and I've signed," he said. Accelerate the cuts for all income tax brackets, as Republicans want, or only for the lower ones, as Democrats favor? Bush didn't say.

He also didn't mention the other hot button issue for Republicans, airport security. Bush has proposed broader federal supervision of the current system in which private firms provide security that is paid for by the airlines. Democrats want full federalization of the security operation--in other words, a new federal agency. The problem is Bush's disinclination to fight federalization and create a rift with Democrats. He insists on security legislation even though federalization has a better than 50-50 chance of passing. House Republicans told Hastert the president should strengthen airport security through executive orders. Nope, said Hastert. There must be a bill. Republicans grumbled it was another concession to Gephardt and Daschle.

Maybe it was. There was no doubt, however, about the decision to put off the bid for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), what used to be known as fast-track authority. This would protect trade bills from being nibbled to death by amendments in Congress. Bush has put a high priority on TPA, and Robert Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, gave a speech recently saying its passage is urgent. But Gephardt, who strongly opposes it, complained first to Hastert and then to the president that the issue is divisive and would hurt the bipartisan spirit needed for agreement on the stimulus package and airline security bill. Not surprisingly, consideration of TPA was postponed. It's not, a Hastert aide said, on the "have-to-do-right-now list."

Fred Barnes is Executive editor at the Weekly Standard. Comment by clicking here.


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