Not long ago, President Bush was listing issues where he and Democrats could work together after the GOP's election "thumpin.' " Democratic leaders also talked the bipartisan talk. Will it instead turn out to be two years of legislative gridlock?
The politics of war, of congressional oversight, and of a premature presidential campaign will make it very difficult for this Congress and White House to move ahead on substantial issues – perhaps more difficult than in past presidencies facing an opposition Congress in the lame-duck years. Add to this an almost evenly divided Senate, and the stage is set for inaction.
That's not to say that work can't be done. Indeed, major challenges such as healthcare, climate change, entitlement reform, and illegal immigration demand cooperation – today if not yesterday. But for this to happen, the president must want to go out on a note that can be heard above the political crossfire of the Iraq war. That desire will have to coincide with one from Democrats to accomplish something beyond their present focus on oversight.
At the moment, that's hard to imagine. Democrats are dumbfounded at the president's refusal to accept what they see as a rebuke to his war strategy in the 2006 election. Although they've had trouble uniting on an alternative, on Friday they got behind a House war-funding bill that sets a troop withdrawal deadline of September 2008. The bill, which narrowly passed, is one of the toughest antiwar measures ever passed during ongoing combat.
President Bush is just as furious with Democrats about what he sees as congressional micromanaging of the war – a job that's his as commander in chief. "Political theater," was how he branded the bill, and he promised a veto. That is, if it reaches him in this form. The Senate is taking up a bill on a nonbinding goal to withdraw troops by April 2008. Republicans believe they can block the provision. Still, those looking for an Iraq compromise between the White House and Congress will have to wait several months at least. The president is unlikely to give ground until he's evaluated his troop "surge."
Also playing in Washington's multiplex political cinema is the congressional investigation over the firing of US prosectors. Democrats have promised oversight for an administration that has largely been without it. That's healthy. But its effectiveness depends on how it's done (with retaliation or with reason?) and how it's received (with defensiveness or cooperation?). That Congress and the White House are duking it out over subpoenas and executive privilege does not portend well for future oversight hearings.
And, months early, the US is fully into a presidential campaign featuring several candidates who are also senators. Candidates and parties, of course, run on their differences, not their similarities. Those differences have a way of affecting the legislative agenda, and can stall action as campaign competition heats up over the best way to tackle a certain issue.
Congress and the White House have a choice. They can make this a productive legislative period, as at the end of Reagan's second term, or far less so, as at the end of the Clinton era. The hurdles are high and will require great effort to clear.