WASHINGTON — After three years of getting most of the major legislation he wanted through a cooperative Congress, President Bush is coming up almost empty-handed this year as he heads into the homestretch of his reelection campaign.
Capitol Hill has turned into a sinkhole for the unfinished business on Bush's agenda, which includes bills to spur domestic energy production, crack down on lawsuits, extend his 2001 tax cuts and liberalize immigration rules.
Bush and his GOP allies blame the Democrats for the stalemate, as the minority party has become more united and stubborn in its opposition to White House initiatives.
But many issues, such as highway funding and additional tax cuts, have languished not just because of Democratic obstruction but also because of divisions among Republicans -- between the House and Senate, moderates and conservatives, and Bush and congressional leaders.
Last week's Senate debate on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was symptomatic of the many forces conspiring to turn this year into a legislative bust for the White House. Despite Bush's strong push for the amendment -- a crowd pleaser for his party's conservative wing -- it met with resounding defeat in the face of solid Democratic opposition and a divided Republican Party.
Even in the House, where Republicans are generally more disciplined in following Bush, his agenda is facing challenges. The House this month nearly passed a measure to scale back Bush's signature anti-terrorism law, the Patriot Act. Only an intensive, 11th-hour round of arm-twisting by GOP leaders spared Bush an embarrassing defeat.
Some Republicans argue that the legislative stalemate will not hurt Bush politically, because Congress already has produced a broad array of major legislation since 2000: big tax cuts, a Medicare prescription drug subsidy, and tools for waging war and combating terrorism.
"Congress has already accomplished so much in three years," said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman. "The president came to Washington wanting to do some big things, and he's accomplished some big things. That doesn't mean he wants to let his foot off the gas."
But some Republicans worry that an anemic record this year will be a political problem, because one of their prime arguments for reelecting Bush and GOP majorities in Congress is that a government dominated by one party can get more done than a divided government.
"You can't just point your finger and call Democrats obstructionist," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). "If you have a job to do, you have to do it. People aren't interested in how many storms you encounter at sea. They want to know when you pull into port."
Some argue that the stalemate is practically inevitable in an election year, because both parties have more incentive to define their differences than to strike legislative compromises. But election pressures do not always produce that result: Before the 1996 elections, Congress and the White House responded to voter impatience with Washington gridlock and produced several major bipartisan laws, such as a welfare overhaul and a minimum wage increase.
Part of the reason Congress has done so little this year, some analysts say, is that Bush has not been asking for much, or has not been pressing hard enough for what he has asked for.
"The administration has not been as aggressive at pushing its agenda as it was a year ago," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
By contrast, the administration's heavy lobbying in 2001 led to approval of Bush's first big tax cut and his education reform initiative, both with significant support from Democrats. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush became the dominant force as bipartisan majorities in Congress passed the Patriot Act, authorization for the war in Afghanistan, an airport security law and other anti-terrorism measures.
The 2002 elections gave Bush more leverage in Congress after his campaigning helped Republicans win control of the Senate. Republicans' gratitude reinforced their willingness to promote his agenda. That helped Bush overcome initial skepticism about the cornerstone of his 2003 proposal to stimulate the economy, a plan to cut taxes on dividend income.
For now, Bush can still count on getting a few important but uncontroversial items through Congress in the next few months, including funding for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, a free trade agreement with Australia and a bill to temporarily extend three popular tax breaks that are about to expire.
But a senior administration official acknowledged that the White House was taking a "minimalist approach" to its legislative ambitions. He said that was in response to Senate Democrats' confrontational stance this year.
"The place is more partisan than it's ever been before," the official said. "They are pushing the envelope."