Bush Talks Tougher, Compromises More

November 17, 1991|By KAREN HOSLER | KAREN HOSLER,Karen Hosler covers the White House for The Sun.

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- George Bush's on-again, off-again affair with Congress has entered an especially contradictory new phase.

With the lawmakers about to adjourn for the year, Mr. Bush has signaled that the White House bazaar is open for last-minute deal-making that could end frustrating stalemates, avoid bruising veto fights and provide both the president and the lawmakers with some much-needed achievements.

Thanks largely to his changes of heart, a civil rights bill has been enacted and checks from a newly-passed extension of unemployment benefits could be in the mail by Thanksgiving. There are also high hopes for a highway bill to finance new construction, a crime package with some form of gun control and a pared-down defense budget.

But Mr. Bush's sweet talk is heavily laced with vinegar as the election year approaches. In between efforts at conciliation, the president is vigorously building his case for blaming a Democratic-led Congress for all the country's shortcomings -- especially the fearful economic woes that may well determine whether he gets another term in the Oval Office.

"We have a Congress that's out of step with the times and out of touch with the heartbeat of the American people," Mr. Bush said at New York fundraiser last week in a try-out of his re-election stump speech. "They're pushing the same old tired liberal agenda to a country that is hungry not build on what we've done abroad and bring that to success here at home."

Even as the two sides were rapidly coming to terms on the jobless benefits bill, Mr. Bush, who had twice rejected earlier versions, claimed it was the Democrats who more interested in "a political victory" over him "than trying to help the working men and women that are out of work."

The scenario was almost identical to events of a few weeks earlier, when Mr. Bush publicly ridiculed the lawmakers as a "privileged class of rulers," as his top aides were giving ground in private bargaining on a civil rights compromise that the president would later hail as a "proud accomplishment" for all.

Democrats, playing their own electoral angles, are no more consistent in their message.

Senate Majority leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, said last week the White House has become "panic city" because of new polls revealing for the first time that Mr. Bush is vulnerable to a Democratic challenge.

"The attempts to blame others for the administration's failures are rather pathetic," said Mr. Mitchell, who earlier had invoked the specter of the Great Depression to dramatize his claim that Mr. Bush is oblivious to victims of the "Bush recession."

"Not since Herbert Hoover has an American president been so slow to see the needs of Americans, so willing to overlook the hardships of ordinary people," Mr. Mitchell said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., have muted their complaints in the spirit of compromise.

But the president inevitably sets the tone of the relationship.

"Congress is essentially leaderless; it's not a cohesive unit that can speak with one voice," observed Mark Helmke, a former Republican congressional aide who is now a lobbyist. "It's easy for them to be whipsawed by a president who bludgeons them one day and makes a deal with them the next."

"I remember how Lyndon used to talk," Mr. Bush said in a wistful recollection of Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson at the Houston kick-off to his re-election fund-raising driveOct. 31. "He'd say, 'Come reason with me,' [and] wrench the guy's arm out of his socket."

Dealings with Mr. Bush, who has fewer members of his own party in Congress than any recent president except Gerald R. Ford, have always been "a mix," said a House Democratic leadership aide.

The president symbolically extended his hand in cooperation during his inaugural address in 1989 but has been bashing the lawmakers with the other fist ever since.

"I've tried the kinder, gentler approach," Mr. Bush told a fundraiser crowd in Dallas. "And I'm going to keep on because I really believe that you can get something done. . . . We've gotten some good legislation through in a compromised way."

But during his campaign appearances, Mr. Bush twice attacked and belittled by name Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a stalwart of the left with whom his administration had negotiated the civil rights compromise.

"Thank God, I didn't have to listen to these carpers telling me how to run [the Persian Gulf] war," the president said.

Mr. Bush's ambivalence toward Congress is more political than personal.

Unlike some past presidents, Mr. Bush feels at home on Capitol Hill. He likes the rhythm of the place, the old-boy, back-slapping milieu. Many of the congressional elders are buddies from his days as a young representative from Texas.

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