Republican Majority Won't Translate into Automatic Wins
Jan. 18, 2005 -- Despite holding one of the largest Republican
majorities in more than 50 years, the 109th Congress poses some
major political challenges to President Bush as he tries to move
his second-term agenda through both the House and Senate.
"[W]hen you win, there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view, and that's what I intend to tell the Congress, that I made it clear what I intend to do as the president ... and the people made it clear what they wanted, now let's work together," the president said after his re-election in November.
hold a 55-44 advantage in the Senate and outnumber Democrats 232-201
in the House. There is one independent in each chamber and both
generally vote with the Democrats. It would seem President Bush
is well positioned to move his legislative agenda forward, but
analysts warn it may be more difficult than it appears.
The Economist warned that if the president pushes issues too divisive or simply too hard, he "could unify the Democrats and strain parts of his Republican alliance."
Much of the debate over policy may occur within the Republican ranks. And for a party once known for its discipline, some fractures have begun to appear. Some legislators in the president's own party are beginning to criticize the administration's handling of certain issues like the budget deficit and the war in Iraq.
The president has already had a taste of what it means to face opposition from
within his own party. Following his reelection, President Bush
urged a lame duck session of Congress to adopt the sweeping intelligence
reform proposal generated largely by the independent investigation
into the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and
Despite the fact that the bill appeared to have the votes to pass both the House and Senate, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., refused to bring the bill to the floor, saying he wanted the bill to have the support of a majority of the House Republicans before he would allow a vote.
President Bush expressed surprise when the bill was not brought to a final vote.
"I was disappointed that the bill didn't pass. I thought it was going to pass up until the last minute," Mr. Bush told reporters.
Democrats denounced the decision, saying it was allowing elements within the Republican caucus to trump the desire of the majority of the whole house.
"We say to Speaker Hastert a rule that says 26 percent shall always govern, that you need a majority of the majority, doesn't make much sense in a democracy," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said at the time.
In the end, bill sponsors, with the blessing of the White House, rewrote sections of the bill to address the concerns of one of the two main opponents in the House, Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. The revised bill, finally allowed a vote on the House floor, passed the House 337-75 and the Senate 89-2.
According to former members of Congress, the lengthy and, at times, heated negotiations between Republican members of the House and the White House are a harbinger of debates to come.
"Let me predict this is the model for the next two years," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., told the NewsHour. "The president is going to have to patiently, calmly, steadily negotiate, go to the country, negotiate, go to the country, but he'll get a lot done if he follows this kind of pattern."
While the Republicans are developing strategies to find compromise within their ranks, the Democrats have their own plan for the new Congress. In a January interview, new Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., laid out a Democratic agenda.
"We have a number of progressive ideas that I think are important," Reid said. "We believe that health insurance is something that people should have. I think we need to make prescription drugs more affordable, protect Social Security and be concerned about education."
Reid has also said the United States must win the war in Iraq and get the budget deficit under control.
Many of these Democratic priorities ostensibly match the president's. But in detail and in approach the parties remain far apart on many of the major issues.
parties are divided, for example, on Social Security reform, which
will likely be the president's first initiative. Mr. Bush has
said the system is in a "crisis" and allowing younger workers
to invest some of their Social Security funds in private accounts
is one way to help fix it. The president has said retirees and
older workers will be able to stay with the current program.
Democrats, on the other hand, have said Social Security is not
in crisis and have accused the president of trying to scare the
public. Reid said private accounts are an attempt to give Social
Security money "to fat cats on Wall Street," and House Minority
Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Said private accounts are "risky"
and will lead to benefit cuts.
Debating a 'Nuclear Option' for Judicial Nominee Votes
Another point of high contention is Senate consideration of judicial nominees. During the president's first term, the Democrats blocked 10 of Mr. Bush's judicial appointments by either filibustering or threatening to filibuster the nominations.
Republicans have said that the blocking of judges by filibuster is unconstitutional and therefore unacceptable as a political tactic. Democrats counter that the filibuster has long been a hallmark of Senate procedure and is rooted in the tradition of unlimited debate in the chamber. Democrats have also pointed that they have blocked only 10 of around 220 of the president's nominees, accusing the GOP of blowing the issue out of proportion.
Still, congressional Republicans and the White House may consider the issue important enough to escalate the fight. The president reportedly plans to re-nominate some of the rejected judges, and GOP legislative leaders have reportedly considered what has been dubbed the "nuclear option": Vice President Dick Cheney, the president of the Senate, would declare the practice of filibustering judges unconstitutional and the GOP caucus in the Senate would vote to uphold his ruling. The GOP leadership could also simply vote to change the body's rules so that unlimited debate would not apply to judicial nominees.
"[I]f my Democratic colleagues continue to filibuster judicial nominees, the
Senate will face this choice: fail to do its constitutional duty,
or reform itself, restore its traditions, and do what the Framers
intended. Right now, we cannot be certain judicial filibusters
will cease," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Said
on the Senate floor on Jan. 4. Frist went on to say he reserves
the right to modify Senate rules and limit debate on judicial
Democrats have warned that if Republicans try to use the "nuclear option" they will retaliate and use every means available to bring all Senate work to a halt.
Although the use of a filibuster to block judges is rare and fairly recent, the fight over nominees goes back to the Reagan administration and both sides through the years have used procedural methods to ensure that the other party's nominees would not receive an up or down vote.
A House and Senate Divided
Congressional historians have remarked that the national legislature hasn't been this divided in nearly a century, a fact that could mean the president will face a gridlocked Congress just when he seeks broad support for his second term agenda.
Time magazine reported recently that Illinois GOP Rep. Ray LaHood had to cancel a planned retreat designed to foster bipartisan cooperation. The retreat has been convened at the beginning of each Congress since 1997. This year, not enough legislators were interested.
"There are just a lot of hard feelings right now," LaHood told Time. "The well has been poisoned."
-- Compiled for the Online NewsHour by Jason Manning