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Bush-Congress Relations Worsen Rapidly : Administration: The capital gains fight is seen as the main cause of the split. The rancor has spread to other issues.

November 09, 1989|SARA FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — During the recent House debate over whether the federal government should pay for abortions for impoverished victims of rape and incest, the partisan diatribes against President Bush were startlingly vitriolic.

"This President cannot stop (Panamanian strongman Manuel A.) Noriega. He cannot decide what to do to promote the rollback of communism in Poland or Hungary," Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.) declared. "But, boy, can he show poor women who's boss . . . . What a leader!"

So shrill were the attacks that the presiding officer felt compelled to remind members that House rules forbid impugning the integrity of the President.

It was the first clear indication that the cozy relationship Bush had with Congress in the early months of his presidency has rapidly deteriorated. "There's no question that the honeymoon is over," Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) said.

Finger Pointing

Now, Bush and Congress are pointing a finger at each other for virtually every unresolved problem facing the nation.

As recently as Tuesday, for example, Bush declared: "The American people know why this deficit isn't down. It isn't down because they see, 4 to 1, that the Congress is to blame."

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) shot back that, although everyone shares the blame, "the principal responsibility is the President's."

Perhaps such a falling out was inevitable between a Republican President and a predominantly Democratic Congress. But the end of Bush's honeymoon with Congress is remarkable not only because it has come so swiftly but also because the President has tried so hard to be friends with members of the legislative body in which he once served.

Even former President Ronald Reagan, whose relations with Congress had reached a low point by the time he left office last January, was able to generate more good will on Capitol Hill than Bush can count on as he nears the end of his crucial first year in the White House.

The issues currently dividing the President and Congress are many and varied--including abortion, economic aid for Poland and Hungary, deficit reduction and U.S. policy toward Noriega's continued rule in Panama.

But the central issue on which Bush's relationship with Congress foundered was his now-stalled proposal to cut the capital gains tax rate, a plan that Democrats in Congress viewed as a betrayal of the commitment both parties made to tax reform in 1986.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) characterized a capital gains proposal as a "Holy Grail" for which the President chose to sacrifice his entire relationship with Congress. In Mitchell's view, the rancor engendered by the lengthy capital gains fight has spilled over into congressional dealings with the White House on most other issues.

"It's obviously very difficult to conduct business in a cooperative manner in this atmosphere," Mitchell said recently.

Just 10 months ago, Bush stood on the steps of the Capitol for his inauguration and pledged to forge a new spirit of cooperation with Congress. "The American people . . . did not send us here to bicker," Bush declared.

As a former member of the House and the presiding officer of the Senate during his eight years as vice president, Bush knew better than most of his predecessors how easily members of Congress can sometimes be swayed by a little personal attention from the President.

To that end, he has frequently invited members of Congress to the White House, called them on the telephone for personal chats and even dined regularly in the House dining room with old friends.

As a result, even Bush's most persistent critics, including Mitchell, concede that his courtesy and consideration for members of Congress have made him personally more popular on Capitol Hill than many of his predecessors. "I like the President personally," Mitchell noted.

For a while, Bush's strategy for courting Congress appeared to be working beautifully. Until just recently, in fact, Democrats were complaining that their leaders had been mesmerized by the President's congenial style. It was not until those complaints reached a fever pitch that Mitchell, Foley and other Democratic leaders began to criticize the President in a way that satisfied most rank-and-file Democrats.

Gibes Aimed at Bush

Now, Mitchell makes almost daily speeches attacking some aspect of the President's policy. And Foley gets in an occasional gibe at the President, although he usually calls on Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) to issue the more partisan statements.

However, Democrats contend that the deteriorating climate springs not from their return to partisanship but from Bush's failure to keep the pledge of cooperation that he made to them last January. Whenever the two parties disagree, they say, the President has insisted on his own proposals without showing a willingness to compromise.

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