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GOP-Led Congress Increasingly Defies Bush

August 03, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A feisty Congress has left for a summer recess with a blunt reminder to President Bush: Republican control of the House and Senate does not give him carte blanche on Capitol Hill.

The GOP-controlled Congress has in recent weeks defied Bush on domestic policies ranging from drug imports to media deregulation to tax credits for the working poor.

Congress is also presenting new challenges to Bush in foreign affairs. Members of both parties have expressed qualms about postwar policy in Iraq. The No. 2 House GOP leader has questioned Bush's "road map" to peace in the Middle East. And the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee last week criticized the president's policy on Liberia.

To be sure, Republicans have stuck with Bush on major fiscal and foreign policy matters. But on a variety of fronts, Congress is showing more independence from Bush than at any point since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"I think Congress has finally found a voice in questioning the administration on a whole range of issues," said Roger Davidson, a visiting professor of government at UC Santa Barbara. "This is a healthy sign because the last Congress pretty much rolled over in the wake of 9/11."

It is a measure, in part, of the dissipation of Bush's post-Sept. 11 aura of command -- with Congress and among the public, according to recent polls that show his approval ratings dropping.

But it is also a reminder that presidential leadership is not the only force that drives legislation through Congress. On two striking occasions this summer, populist tides moved Congress to override Bush's objections. That is how the House came to approve a bill allowing the importation of lower-cost prescription drugs -- a measure that had built a powerful head of steam among constituents angered by rising drug prices.

The House also responded to an outpouring of public concern about media consolidation by approving a bill to block Federal Communications Commission regulations that would allow big media companies to get even bigger.

A key question for the fall is whether Congress can finish work on a bill that is propelled by both presidential leadership and populist appeal: a major rewrite of the Medicare program that would provide prescription drug coverage and expand the role of the private sector in the federal health insurance program for the elderly.

That Congress began a monthlong recess Friday with the Medicare bill far from completion is a measure of how dramatically prospects have changed for the legislation -- even though it is a top domestic priority for Bush.

In June, when the House and Senate broke a long-standing deadlock and passed different versions of the Medicare measure, the issue seemed to have tremendous momentum. Some lawmakers even talked of getting a bill to the president's desk by the end of July. But it soon became clear that such a timetable was unrealistic because of big differences between the bills: The House went much further than the Senate in expanding the role of private insurers and health plans, a politically sensitive issue that goes to the heart of the program's future.

Bush has repeatedly urged lawmakers to resolve their differences quickly -- most recently at a White House ceremony last week on the 38th anniversary of Medicare.

"The House and Senate have got to work out their differences," Bush said. "And they are going to. There's a spirit of cooperation and a can-do attitude amongst the conferees."

But congressional sources say they have new doubts about whether a deal can be struck this year. "We'll see," said a senior House Republican leadership aide. "I wouldn't say it's ironclad."

House and Senate Republicans have also shrugged off White House entreaties to approve legislation to expand a tax break for working-poor families with children.

The Senate in May passed a $10.5-billion bill to channel checks of up to $400 per child to such families, who were left out of the per-child tax credit increase included in last spring's tax-cut law. Democrats spotlighted the omission, saying it showed the GOP was insensitive to the working poor.

To quiet the clamor, the White House urged the House to rush approval of the Senate bill. House Republicans refused, instead passing an $80-billion bill that also provided more tax cuts for wealthier people.

There the issue languished for weeks, with House and Senate Republicans at odds. Bush once again, in his Saturday radio address, called for Congress to act. But Democrats said that, for all Bush's talk, he never applied the real political muscle needed to get Republicans to compromise.

In the drug-import debate, the White House and GOP leaders opposed the bill because of concerns about the safety of drugs purchased abroad. But that argument carried little weight with rank-and-file lawmakers who were being lobbied heavily by constituents. In a rare breakdown of party discipline, 87 House Republicans defied the president and party leaders in voting for the bill.

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