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To Boost Power, Unity Is Key For Both Parties

Congress returns to a full agenda, a swirling political climate, a set of huge trials abroad, a budget mess at home and an intensifying presidential campaign. What more could we ask for?

The dynamic is very different this September than it was last fall. Then, the White House and Congressional Republicans were not looking for major policy successes or triumphant signing ceremonies in the Rose Garden. They were looking for ways to blame the obstructionist Democrats running the Senate for blocking the Homeland Security Department for narrow political purposes.

[IMGCAP(1)] Now, fully in charge and approaching the presidential re-election year, the White House and Congressional Republicans are hoping to score some policy victories, earning a few of those precious photo ops at signing ceremonies to show the American people that they are moving forward and making progress in Washington. It will be much harder to blame anyone else for failure. With continuing sluggishness in the economy, progress on the domestic front is even more important.

Both parties have major challenges. Just before Congress left for the August recess, the impressive and consistent GOP unity in the House was shaken with a powerful rebuff of the president and the leaders on reimportation of prescription drugs. Can Congressional Republicans regain that impressive unity for hot-button issues ahead in health care, energy, defense, taxes and deficits — or was reimportation a harbinger of disunity ahead? Can the Bush White House continue to pursue its approach of using tough-edged partisanship to accomplish most of its goals (keeping its base happy) and still woo moderate and liberal Democrats when it needs them (and thereby infuriate the base)?

Can Democrats play and win games of chicken with the Republicans and the White House on issues such as prescription drugs and energy? Can they keep enough unity to bedevil Republicans when the majority can’t keep its act together — and can the Senate Democrats maintain any real threat of filibuster if four or more key members of their Caucus are AWOL through January or February while trolling for votes in Iowa and New Hampshire?

Compromise: Out of Reach

Each of these questions is interesting in and of itself. But they have to be put into a larger framework. Over the past three years, in a nation more evenly divided politically than at any time since the 19th century and with a Congress having the closest margins in most of our lifetimes (and with the Senate for a good share of it in the hands of the opposition), the Bush White House and Congressional Republican leaders have employed a bold and audacious strategy — governing as if they have not a 50/50 nation and Congress but a 60/40 majority. Simultaneously, they have worked relentlessly — in the ultimate extension of the permanent campaign — to move their Congressional majorities from 51/49 or so to toward the magic 60/40.

The promise of a golden age of bipartisanship at the beginning of the Bush presidency was rekindled, with interest, after Sept. 11, 2001. Who could forget the warm embrace and warmer words shared by President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) on the floor of the House chamber following the president’s address to the nation the week after the calamity? But it was followed rather quickly by a relentless GOP campaign to demonize Daschle and blame the Democrats (successfully, in the end) for obstructionism, built around the homeland security issue. Other than the impeachment era in 1998-2000, it is hard to find a time of greater partisan tension and animosity.

So it was particularly striking this summer when the president struck another bargain with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), this time on prescription drugs for seniors. As we entered the stretch before the home stretch before the 2004 election, was Bush attempting to build a portfolio of domestic accomplishments by going back to a balanced strategy, with more education-type deals ahead?

Nah. On prescription drugs, actually, we have seen an odd, hybrid strategy — deal with liberal Kennedy in the Senate, while falling back to the hard-line, partisan approach in the House. So now the prescription drug issue sits in conference. Unlike patients’ rights, the White House and the Republicans do not want to see this issue die in conference; they have too much riding on its success, and conference gridlock will be blamed on those in power.

But with 70 House Republicans signing a drop-dead pledge to oppose any bill lacking their tough market provisions, and more than 40 Senate Democrats taking their own drop-dead position to block any bill that includes said provisions, compromise seems out of reach. Compromise is even more difficult given the high levels of animosity between Senate and House Republicans, the lack of personal bond between Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and his Ways and Means counterpart Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), and the presence on the conference committee of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who will zealously protect the interests of those 70 conservatives mentioned above.

What are the chances that the White House and its Congressional lieutenants spurn the support of those 70 Republicans and move to replace them with compromise-minded House Democrats? Let’s pick a round number — zero.

So the alternative to a conference deadlock seems to be finding a way to bribe Grassley with money for rural health care to get a bill like the House version onto the Senate floor, let the Senate Democrats filibuster it, and then blame them for obstructionism. Not exactly a new approach to bipartisan compromise. And no easy thing to pull off, given the dynamics above.

Then there is energy. After months of bitter partisan sniping and gridlock on this issue, the widespread Northeast blackout seemed to provide an opening for quick movement. Nah. The White House and its Congressional allies see the blackout and the spot shortages of gasoline around the country as leverage to gain the upper hand over Democrats on the main bones of contention on energy, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and incentives for energy producers. Democrats see the blackout as an opportunity to get a quick fix on the electricity grid and separate it out from the contentious issues. What lies ahead is much more likely to be a game of partisan chicken, a showdown between the president and the Congressional Democrats over how to act on the electricity crisis, than a bipartisan package.

The Other Big Three

These have to be the two biggest issues confronting Congress this fall. But right up there with them are three other interrelated ones: Iraq, the overstretched military and the budget deficit.

Congress will undoubtedly devote a lot of time, energy and attention to the mess in Iraq, mostly via oversight and investigative hearings, with a smattering of legislating.

For Democrats in Congress, there is now a chance, perhaps, to reap some of the side benefits that can come from being shut out of power. The accountability is all with Republicans, and the headaches are theirs to solve. But to reap any rewards, Democrats have to overcome their own self-inflicted obstacles, while hoping that Republicans self-inflict some wounds of their own.

The biggest challenge for Democrats is their long-standing Achilles’ heel. No matter what the circumstances, Democrats can’t seem to find the same high levels of unity that Republicans manage. Perhaps the 40 consecutive years in minority status created a different attitude among GOPers. Perhaps it’s the party culture. Maybe it is the remarkable skill and tenacity of Republican leaders like DeLay and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), along with DeLay’s occasional sadistic streak. Whatever it may be, Republicans have done astonishingly well in the House, making paper-thin margins seem like they are phone-book thick.

Despite the Senate’s culture of independence and the larger proportion of genuine moderates, Republicans have shown impressive unity there as well. But time after time, when the GOP has had cracks in its cohesiveness or shown signs of vulnerability, leaders in each chamber have been able to find enough Democrats to fill in the gaps.

As a minority party in the House, Democrats have been treated shabbily — ignored, shunned, ridiculed and left powerless repeatedly as Republicans have used closed rules and the power of the gavel to make them impotent (using and expanding many of the tricks of the trade they learned from the Democrats when they were in the majority, while adding a few of their own).

So you would think Democrats, feeling that abuse and powerlessness, would strike hard via party unity when the Republicans were in trouble. Nah. How can one explain mainstream Democrats such as Reps. Steve Israel (N.Y.) and Earl Pomeroy (N.D.) giving DeLay the gift of their votes on prescription drugs, relieving DeLay of the need to beg several more nervous and unhappy Republicans to get over the hump? Whatever they and a bunch of their colleagues had pledged to constituents or got from Republican leaders, the reality is that if the House Republican prescription drug benefit had failed on the House floor because Democrats united to oppose it and Republicans couldn’t keep their own act together, the GOP would have had to regroup, its leaders weaker, and might have been forced to craft a genuinely bipartisan bill like the Senate’s. It is hard to fathom the kind of narrow and parochial mindset of Members who would ignore that reality.

It is equally hard to explain retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.). Usually, when lawmakers have philosophical differences with their own party bases, they vote with the other party on substance, but unite with their own party on procedure. Miller has gone beyond ideological agreement or principle on many issues with the president to becoming a reflexive vote against his party, almost no matter the issue or strategic consequences. Then there is Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who voted with the president on the latest round of tax cuts by striking a hard bargain — $20 billion in additional aid to the states in return for a tax bill that will cut states’ revenues as they conform to federal changes by twice that much. What a deal! Just like on prescription drugs in the House, if the Senate Republicans had been unable to get their tax bill with GOP votes alone, they and the White House would have been pushed to cut a broader deal with a larger group of mainstream Democrats. But Democrats’ own disunity undercut their position and thereby their collective power.

In the next six months, as Republicans find increasing stresses within their own ranks — a natural phenomenon as a presidential election approaches, the strains of casting multiple tough votes against the grain of constituencies or personal viewpoints grow, and the natural hostilities between House and Senate get aggravated — the Democrats have a golden opportunity both to score political points and gain political and substantive leverage, including bargaining in the House for a simple place at the table.

But if their House and Senate leaders can’t keep the troops in line — and can’t find both the discipline and a story line in the Senate to hold their own on likely showdowns with the president on prescription drugs, energy, defense and further tax cuts — Democrats will be both shut out and hurting as next November nears.

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