Friday, December 23, 2005

The Year of the Pushback

Students of American political history like myself (hey, I reread the “Federalist Papers” last year) know that sooner or later every president has a showdown with Congress over the extent of his powers.

In the case of President Bush, “later” is the operative word, but it finally began to happen this year. Several examples:

* The refusal of the Senate this week to approve a four-year extension of the USA Patriot Act.

* The refusal of Congress to consider the president’s plan to “reform” Social Security.

* A rebuff of the president on stem cell research

* A rebuff on making his first-term tax cuts permanent.

* Forcing the president to accept tighter restrictions on the treatment of terror detainees.

* Forcing him to rewrite his immigration reform plan.

The Washington Post notes that:

What is most striking is that the pushback is coming not just from Democrats and moderate Republicans, who often disagree with Bush, but also from mainstream conservatives.

The year's events, say some legislators and scholars, reflect more than just a change in the president's legislative scorecard. They suggest Bush may have reached the outer limits of a long-term project to reshape the powers of the presidency. This effort was underway even before the military intervention in Iraq and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks contributed to a traditional wartime flow of authority to the executive branch.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush has been especially aggressive in the area of domestic surveillance. This month's revelations about the administration's use of the highly secret National Security Agency to monitor some domestic communications without judicial review has whetted a new -- and critics say overdue -- appetite for congressional oversight . . .

Power among three branches of government always ebbs and flows, and it is possible Bush will regain dominance.

But several factors are working against him as he heads into the final three years of his presidency without obvious momentum. Many of the priorities he laid out at the start of the year, such as revamping Social Security, went nowhere. Bush has yet to highlight a new agenda, though White House aides say he will do that in the new year.

Bush's task, however, is complicated by the fraying of reins that he and GOP congressional leaders jointly used to keep control of Washington's agenda. A leadership crisis in the House -- prompted by the indictment of former majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) on charges of campaign finance violations -- has made it harder to enforce loyalty from rank-and-file Republicans. In the unwieldy Senate, meanwhile, party discipline remains difficult even though Republicans hold 55 of the 100 seats -- as was proved this week when the leadership had to yield on an Alaska oil-drilling proposal and the Patriot Act extension.

As important, Bush cannot run again, and the closer lawmakers get to the next congressional elections, the more inclined they are to oppose him if it helps them at home.

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