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Jewish World Review August 13, 2001 / 24 Meanchem-Av 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Conferences: Gridlock or compromise? -- BOTH President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., can claim legislative strength and public support. This situation leads to a question: Will they cooperate this fall to get stuff done, or fight to a fruitless draw?

The scene of action -- on both substantive legislation and appropriations bills -- will be a welter of House-Senate conference committees, which will either turn into arenas of creative compromise or, as one White House aide said, "killing fields." ?

There's reason to hope that government by conference can produce deals on education, faith-based welfare, energy, and even patients' rights. They have to do so on spending. ?

However, Medicare and Social Security reform are likely to end up as campaign issues. Heading into an August break before the heavy bargaining begins, Bush has gained renewed strength, but Daschle also has demonstrated he's a determined and skilled legislative player. Polls indicate that the public supports Bush in general, but backs Daschle on many issues. ?

Ever since Democrats took over the Senate in late May, it appeared that Daschle had achieved the upper hand, setting the Washington policy agenda and forcing Bush to play catch-up. ?

The majority leader held Democrats together to pass campaign finance reform and then patients' rights legislation, which forced House Republicans to deal with his priorities instead of Bush's. ?

House GOP leaders craftily fended off the campaign reform challenge and successfully passed the President's faith-based initiative, but it was widely predicted that Bush could be stymied on energy legislation and patients' rights. ?

Indeed, it was written again and again that Bush was on the verge of losing support from moderate House Republicans, who would vote with Democrats to pass the Dingell-Ganske-Norwood patients' rights bill and defeat Bush's production-based energy plan. This scenario was proved wrong, owing to successful lobbying by Bush and whipping by GOP leaders, thereby making Bush's victories seem all the more dramatic. ?

On patients' rights, Bush convinced Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., that he really would veto the Dingell-Ganske measure, causing Norwood to fear that six years of work on the issue would come to naught. ?

Showing both resolve and resilience, Bush offered Norwood a deal that the Georgia lawmaker felt he couldn't refuse, causing him to abandon -- and outrage -- his former collaborators. ?

Norwood claimed that Bush gave more than he received, but howling Democrats gave the victory to the president. On the crucial vote to adopt the Norwood-Bush compromise, only six Republicans defected, and Bush picked up three Democrats, resulting in a 218-213 win. ?

On top of that, with crucial last-minute assistance from the Teamsters Union and the United Auto Workers, the House passed Bush's energy bill, authorizing partial opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for exploration and defeating higher fuel-efficiency standards for sport-utility vehicles. ?

White House aides jubilantly declared that, considering Bush's early tax cut, budget victories and progress on education, the president's accomplishments in his first six months in office far outstrip those of his recent predecessors. ?

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer noted that it wasn't until August 1981 that Ronald Reagan passed his landmark tax cuts. Similarly, in 1993, Bill Clinton pushed his economic plan through in August, though he won fast-track trade authority in July. According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, Bush is heading into summer vacation with a strong 59-percent approval rating. ?

At the same time, when voters were asked whether they wanted the country's agenda to be set by the president or Congressional Democrats, the result was a virtual tie: Democrats were favored 43 percent over Bush's 42 percent. ?

Democrats lead by 54 percent to 37 percent on the environment, 49 percent to 41 percent on energy, 49 percent to 41 percent on patients rights, 51 percent to 42 percent on Social Security, and 50 percent to 39 percent on controlling the cost of prescription drugs. ?

The poll indicated that by large margins, voters are buying the Democratic accusation that Bush is influenced too much by big business, the oil-and-gas industry, and the wealthy. By 54 percent to 45 percent, they said he does not understand the problems of ordinary people. ?

Democrats have persuaded the public to be skeptical about whether Bush's tax cuts will leave enough funds to protect Social Security and pay for health and education programs; and by 63 percent to 33 percent, voters say they prefer these programs to holding down the size of government. ?

The poll did not ask a generic congressional election question for 2002, but it found that by 60 percent to 36 percent, the public has a favorable impression of the Democratic Party. Republicans scored 51 percent favorable, 46 percent unfavorable. ?

When Congress and the President get back into town, Daschle will be pushing a minimum-wage increase and hate-crime legislation. Bush wants trade-promotion authority, which White House aides are becoming more optimistic about winning. Ultimately, though, success or failure is going to be determined by what conference committees produce -- and that, in turn, will be largely decided by what Daschle and Bush can come to terms on. They ought to start talking to each other every day.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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