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Congress begins to say 'no' to White House

House and Senate assert independence on issues ranging from media to surveillance.

The Congress that has signed off on more than $1 trillion in new tax cuts - and sat on the sidelines as the commander in chief took a nation to war - is finding its voice. And, lately, that voice has been saying, "No."

From planning postwar Iraq to reining in drug costs at the local pharmacy, lawmakers are challenging Bush administration decisions. The resistance is growing, and, increasingly, it's coming from both sides of the aisle. And it's eroding the view that this wartime president is invincible.

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So far, the issues are still B-level. Congress is questioning 16 inaccurate words in the president's justification for taking up arms against Saddam Hussein, not whether the war itself was wrong. Likewise, while 28 blanked-out pages in a report on 9/11 are raising eyebrows, no one is blaming the administration for the attacks.

Some of the erosion is normal. "Sooner or later, every Congress discovers it is an independent branch of the federal government," says Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "When the Congress is of the same party as the president, that discovery tends to come later."

But polling data suggest public dissatisfaction is also running deeper - and fueling the new resistance in Congress. It could mark a turning point in the Bush presidency. "With the president sliding in the polls, both Demo-crats and even some moderate Republicans are emboldened to be more critical," says pollster John Zogby.

The shocks started in the GOP-controlled House, where a word from the White House has usually been enough to marshal a majority quickly. As members prepared to get out of town for August recess, the House voted 400-21 to roll back a new ruling on media ownership by the Federal Communications Commission, over strong White House objections.

The decision emboldened the president's opponents, says Mr. Zogby. "This is what Iran-contra was to President Reagan: a turning point. No more Teflon."

last week, nearly half of House Republicans joined Democrats in outlawing "sneak and peak" searches, a feature of the 2001 USA Patriot Act. And - another surprise - the House logged a strong vote for a drug importation bill that the White House had labeled "dangerous."

"We were at one of our finest moments last week. I would describe it as allowing the will of the Congress to prevail," says GOP Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, who led the effort to relax restrictions on the reimportation of brand-name drugs intended for sale in other countries, where they often sell at considerably lower prices than in the United States.

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The four-term Missouri lawmaker is hardly a rebel: She voted with President Bush on tax cuts, free trade, the war, faith-based charities, and partial-birth abortion.

But prescription drug costs was another matter. A representative of one of the poorest districts in the nation, along the Mississippi Delta, Emerson says she hears constantly from constituents about the high cost of medication. "There is no issue people talk about in our district more.... It's an issue that transcends politics."

The Senate joined the revolt this week when it roared disapproval of a Pentagon website designed to promote a futures market on terrorist attacks. The plan, first disclosed by Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Ron Wyden of Oregon, equally riled Republicans, who dubbed it "absurd."

At the same time, pressure is building in the Senate to bypass White House objections and declassify 28 pages from the joint inquiry into the 9/11 attacks. Mr. Bush rejected Tuesday an appeal from Saudi Arabia's foreign minister to declassify these pages, which detail sources of foreign support for the 9/11 hijackers, saying it would "help the enemy."

In response, Sens. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas and Charles Schumer (D) of New York began collecting signatures to force disclosure of the material. It's an unusual procedure, and the insurgents may not have the votes. But some moderate Republicans are endorsing the idea. "The American people have a right to have a complete picture of what the inquiry was all about," says Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Still, analysts say a Republican-controlled Congress will go only so far in rejecting a Republican president. "Every once in a while, even a docile Congress can throw a tantrum," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "But Republicans are more deferential to their presidents than Democrats have been."


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