Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Tower Has Cost Bush Goodwill, Momentum. AFTER THE SHOWDOWN

PRESIDENT Bush's briefly bipartisan relationship with the Senate has been substantially but not irrevocably damaged by the failure of the John Tower nomination, political analysts say. The President's most serious problem, several add, is that he has lost momentum and expended precious political capital in vainly seeking confirmation of former Senator Tower as secretary of defense.

At the same time, analysts say, the rancorous partisanship that uncharacteristically erupted in the Senate last week will not permanently affect that body.

About these ads

The healing process is already under way, both in relations between the President and the Senate and between Senate Republicans and Democrats. President Bush's new choice for defense secretary, Rep. Dick Cheney of Wyoming, drew high praise from congressional Democrats as well as Republicans. Mr. Cheney, the second-highest Republican in the House, is expected to be confirmed easily by the Senate.

Even before the 53-to-47 vote rejecting the Tower nomination, Senate majority leader George Mitchell of Maine appealed to members of both parties to retreat from partisanship.

What remains to be determined, however, is whether Vice-President Dan Quayle's harsh attack Friday on Senate Democrats is an isolated occurrence. If repeated, such criticism could damage Bush's efforts to rebuild relations with Senate Democrats.

In the Tower vote ``George Bush had his first confrontation,'' says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, ``and Congress didn't blink. He did.''

Therefore, ``the fear factor is gone,'' Mr. Ornstein says. Congress will not worry on every key vote whether the President will, at the last moment, turn apparent defeat into victory, as President Reagan regularly did during the first years of his presidency.

The battle ``has damaged the President's resources to push ahead his agenda,'' says Prof. James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

As Dr. Thurber notes, the issue is more than whether Mr. Tower was confirmed or, as occurred, defeated by the Senate. ``It's a broader question'' of President Bush's ``ability to set goals and objectives, and to pursue them effectively.

About these ads

``Politics is based on reciprocity,'' Thurber says. ``And if you use up resources with people in the Senate, as he has, you cannot come back quickly and ask for more help on other votes. ... [Even Senate] Republicans are a bit angry about this.''

But the touchy Tower nomination was not the fundamental cause of the dispute, says James Sundquist of the Brookings Institution. Divided government, with a Republican White House and a Democratic Congress, is. ``The difficulty was there in advance,'' he says, just waiting for a contentious issue over which the parties would divide. Thus he considers the strident partisanship of the Tower fight was ``unavoidable.''

Nonetheless, the Tower outcome ``is a major defeat'' for Bush, says Philip Truluck, executive vice-president of the Heritage Foundation. The fight was so rancorous, he says, that ``it's going to take some time to restore'' good working relations between the President and Congress.

Mr. Truluck says the outcome means that Bush ``is going to have to take a look at how serious the erosion really is.'' For more than a decade presidents have complained increasingly that power has been flowing steadily out of the White House and toward Capitol Hill, on everything from foreign policy to fiscal issues. To these now may be added the question of Cabinet appointments.

By pressing for Tower, Bush ``simply lost whatever momentum he had created'' toward bipartisanship with Congress, says John Chubb of the Brookings Institution, and he will now have to work to restore that atmosphere.

He succeeded once, and he can again, says Mr. Chubb. Democratic officials ``were extremely upset during the election campaign, and were talking about how the Bush administration would have no honeymoon,'' he says. By January Democrats as well as Republicans were talking soothingly of bipartisanship.

One thing could help Bush. He did not lobby senators individually and thus involve himself in the struggle - the arm-twisting that Lyndon Johnson made famous and successive presidents have periodically employed.

What happens now in the Bush-Senate relationship will depend substantially on the reactions ``of the two crucial players'' - the President and Senate majority leader Mitchell, Chubb says.

But he adds that if Bush and his aides refrain from getting personal, Senate Democrats likely will respond by treating Bush ``more gently ... in the near future. I think there will be sort of an understanding that the Democrats in the Senate owe him one.''

For their part Senate Democrats, and their leader, need to recognize that their victory in the Tower case ``was an extraordinary one,'' Chubb says, based not so much on numerical superiority as on special circumstances.

Within the Senate itself, generally a much less partisan body than the House, ``the club is still intact,'' Heritage's Truluck says. ``While there's going to be a lot of bitterness in the short term, there's not going to be long-term damage'' to bipartisanship.

How long will it take for the bitterness to dissipate?

Experts differ. ``For maybe the next year,'' says Ornstein of American Enterprise Institute. ``I don't think these words are going to be healed very quickly.''

``It's likely that the finger-pointing and the blame and the hurt will disappear in a few weeks,'' says the more optimistic Chubb of the Brookings Institution, ``and that it'll then be back to business as usual.''

Which raises the question: What is business as usual in a new administration?

``The budget will dominate the agenda until late summer,'' American University's Thurber says, although a few other issues will intrude. One is the bailout of savings-and-loan institutions.

Another is a proposed boost in the minimum wage, now $3.35 an hour, to $4.65 by 1992: Passed last week by committees of both houses, it may reach the floors of the Senate and House before the weekend. Not too far behind may come the proposal to provide unpaid leave for new parents and people who have to provide care to an ill family members.

In the face of these proposals from the Democratic agenda, the Tower defeat leaves Bush in a position of having ``now become a reactive president without a clear agenda,'' Thurber says.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.