Partisan jockeying begins

Lame-duck Congress likely to be a challenge for Bush

Change in Washington

November 10, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- On a day when Democrats celebrated their sweep of both houses of Congress, President Bush and Democratic leaders pledged yesterday to put the bitterly fought election behind them and work together.

But the lame-duck congressional session that begins next week is shaping up as an early test of bipartisanship. Republicans and Democrats are already quietly jockeying to set the agenda.

Just minutes before Bush sat down to a lunch at the White House with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the presumptive House speaker, and her No. 2, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the president laid out an ambitious to-do list for Congress, elements of which insiders say are likely to spark partisan battles on Capitol Hill over the next few weeks.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption on Page 1A of yesterday's editions said that Rep. Steny H. Hoyer is expected to be the House majority whip in the next Congress. He is now the minority whip; he is seeking the post of majority leader.
The Sun regrets the error.

Fights could be looming on authorization of the National Security Agency's surveillance program, which Democrats have called illegal, and the nomination of John R. Bolton as envoy to the United Nations, whom they have branded unacceptable.

Congress is more likely to approve a civilian nuclear deal with India, pass narrow tax and energy measures and confirm Robert M. Gates, Bush's choice to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

The members of Congress who gather next week will be those from the current House and Senate, not the newly elected body that will be sworn in in January.

With both parties likely to be consumed by intramural power struggles, strategists said the president isn't likely to get much out of a lame-duck Congress other than a new budget and a hint of whether he can fulfill his stated goal of finding "common ground" with Democrats.

"It is our responsibility to put the elections behind us and work together on the great issues facing America," Bush said in a Rose Garden appearance with his Cabinet members standing behind him, a scene that seemed designed to remind the public that whatever had happened on Election Day, Bush is still president.

"Some of these issues need to be addressed before the current Congress finishes its legislative session, and that means the next few weeks are going to be busy ones."

Democrats said they were willing to work with Republicans to complete spending bills for 2007 and to address a handful of other items, but they were quick to throw cold water on some of Bush's ideas, such as the Bolton nomination. Senior congressional aides suggested the president's goal of pushing through the surveillance measure and a Vietnam trade deal face long odds.

And there were questions about whether, after 12 years of increasingly nasty partisan bickering, culminating in an election season full of overheated rhetoric, Bush and Democrats could work together.

"The first thing you've got to do is to feel like you can trust each other," said Leon Panetta, who was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff when Republicans swept into power in 1994. "Behavior has to change here. They can't use the incendiary words of ultimatum and cheap shots that they've been using against each other, and they've got to open up the lines of communication."

Democrats, who in less than two months will take control of both houses of Congress for the first time in a dozen years, appeared to be in no mood to tackle major measures, preferring to wait until they're in charge before making their mark on policy.

Lame-duck sessions "don't lend themselves to much serious legislating," said Jim Manley, the spokesman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who is expected to become the new majority leader. "We'll do as much as we can this year, and then we'll turn our attention to starting all over again next year with a new direction."

Republicans, too, were scaling back their expectations for the post-election session, named "lame duck" because it is a carryover of the old Congress and includes members who were not re-elected or are ending their terms for other reasons. This year, that group includes at least 26 Republicans who lost their seats this week and 22 other lawmakers from both parties who are leaving.

Republican House and Senate aides said party leaders are still discussing whether to push Bolton's nomination and Bush's measure authorizing the NSA's warrantless surveillance program, knowing that it would meet Democratic opposition.

"I know those are things [Bush] wants, but we'll see what the market will bear," said Amy Call, a spokeswoman for Republican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, who is retiring.

Bush formally re-nominated Bolton yesterday, in an effort to gain his confirmation before the U.N. ambassador's temporary appointment - made in August 2005 after his earlier nomination stalled in the Senate - expires in January. But it quickly became clear that the nomination would meet with objections, partisan and otherwise.

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