Jewish World Review Dec. 7, 2004 / 24 Kislev, 5765
Carl P. Leubsdorf
Bush's goals may suffer if GOP partisanship continues
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | In the two weeks since collapse of the intelligence reorganization bill, it's become clear that doubts over its provisions were only partly responsible.
A major factor was the refusal by House Republicans to rely on Democratic votes, reflecting the increasingly partisan approach of the GOP congressional majority.
As historian Alan Brinkley noted recently in The American Prospect, "Republicans have abandoned bipartisanship as either a goal or a value."
President Bush has often acquiesced in this approach. It's a sharp reversal from the bipartisanship he practiced in Texas and undercuts his oft-stated - but only occasionally followed - vow to be a uniter rather than a divider.
More important, it could threaten a number of the president's second-term goals: simplifying the nation's tax system, reshaping Social Security and reforming immigration laws.
The details of all three will likely be sufficiently controversial that approval may require the bipartisan approach that helped President Reagan pass major tax, Social Security and immigration reforms in the 1980s.
To be sure, partisanship in the House is hardly new. Though Speaker Tip O'Neill and Republican Leader Bob Michel got along famously in those days, relations were more acrimonious when Texan Jim Wright became speaker.
After his departure, the last Democratic speaker, Tom Foley, took a less partisan approach.
But things changed dramatically when Republicans took power in 1995 for the first time in 40 years.
From the outset, Speaker Newt Gingrich made it clear he would run things differently. He pulled GOP freshmen members out of the traditionally bipartisan orientation sessions and abandoned routine consultation on scheduling and procedural matters with his Democratic counterparts.
While the current speaker, Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, has a less hard-line image outside Capitol Hill, he has been as partisan as his predecessor.
As Charles Babington pointed out in an excellent analysis in The Washington Post last week, Hastert has adopted an explicit policy of not bringing bills to the floor unless they have the support of "the majority of the majority."
That gives a majority of the 230 Republicans - or 26 percent of the House - a virtual veto.
That's a smaller minority than the 41 senators whose ability to use Senate filibuster rules to block nominations has prompted such complaints from GOP leaders.
Angered because the Democrats used the filibuster to block votes on 10 of more than 200 Bush judicial nominations, Majority Leader Bill Frist has threatened to use the GOP's 55-seat majority to force a rules change barring the tactic against judicial nominees.
If approved, it would give Republicans power beyond that of previous majorities.
But while a Senate rules change might produce short-term GOP gains by ensuring confirmation of embattled conservative judges, it would further exacerbate relations between the parties.
That could be a dangerous step, considering that resistance from some Republicans will likely require Bush to attract Democratic votes to pass tax, Social Security and immigration changes.
It was top House Republicans who forced the administration to delay consideration of private Social Security accounts until after the 2004 election. And Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, raised questions about Bush's plans for major changes in tax policy.
The more prudent course for Bush might be to make a real effort to strengthen his shaky ties with congressional Democrats, rather than encourage policies that increase partisanship.
It might also be smart for him to consider an even more dramatic move toward true bipartisanship by including at least one well-known Democrat on his administration's revamped economic team, rather than merely naming more people who already agree with his views and his approach.