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Controlled by center, Congress challenges Bush

WASHINGTON—A new center of political power rose up in Washington this week, and it could challenge the White House and leaders of Congress for control of the national agenda.

A newly assertive bipartisan coalition of independent-minded lawmakers first showed itself Monday night in the Senate fight over federal judges, then again in the House of Representatives' approval Tuesday of a bill that would allow federal financing for new lines of embryonic stem-cell research.

If it persists, this new political center could force President Bush to negotiate with Congress to a degree he rarely has done. Even if this centrist coalition doesn't endure, its successes this week suggest that the post-Sept. 11, 2001, deference of the Republican-ruled Congress to President Bush no longer is automatic.

"Whether it's a stable governing coalition remains to be seen," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "It took great duress to create this center."

Experts expect more such maverick coalitions to appear as Congress feels pressure from Bush's ambitious agenda and interest groups on both sides demand take-no-prisoners fights. Such all-out confrontations fuel electoral politics, fundraising, and radio and television ratings for the 2006 and 2008 elections, but they also antagonize many voters, and centrists seem to be responding.

Conservatives are anxious that they haven't gotten everything they wanted after winning last year's elections; liberals are angry that they can't block more of Bush's agenda, and independents remain frustrated by all the partisan shouting that dominates the capital.

These disgruntled constituencies add up to one of the lowest public-approval ratings for Congress since 1993-1994, just before voters threw Democrats out of power in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Awareness of such widespread public discontent doubtless played a part in helping centrists forge the will to seize the reins.

"Coalitions like this growing beyond White House knowledge and control is what you can expect to see the rest of the term," Schier said. "It's going to vary issue to issue."

On Tuesday, Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio urged other senators to join him in opposing Bush's nomination of John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "I strongly feel that the importance of this nomination to our foreign policy requires us to set aside our partisan agenda," Voinovich wrote in a letter to his colleagues.

Senate confirmation of Bolton still appears likely, perhaps this week, although it's possible that some other Republicans also may vote against him.

Indeed, this week's two center coalitions defy easy labels.

Not all members were centrists. The Senate coalition of 14 included both conservative John Warner, R-Va., and liberal Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. They appeared driven mainly by respect for the Senate's traditions, as they agreed to protect a president's right to get some of his judicial nominees to a Senate vote while maintaining the Senate minority's right to block final action in "extraordinary circumstances."

Several Republican coalition members—Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island—hail from the Northeast. Republican voters there are less comfortable culturally with the social-conservative wing of their party, which dominates the South and West. Those senators have a stake in showing voters they won't go along with nominees perceived as extremists.

Conversely, several Senate Democrats who signed on —including Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ken Salazar of Colorado—represent states that Bush carried in November. They have an interest in proving to voters back home that they aren't prisoners to Democratic-leaning interest groups.

Other centrist senators routinely buck their party's orthodoxy as mavericks—Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

What all 14 had in common was a will to compromise despite pressure not to do so from party leaders and their party's most fervent interest groups.

"The very fact that some Republicans are willing to stick their necks out is critical," said Betty Glad, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina. "If they would occasionally defect from the president here and there, then the president wouldn't get everything he wants."

In the House, many Republicans followed the lead of Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., in backing a bill to increase federal support for stem-cell research. Many declared themselves staunchly anti-abortion but refused to see the stem-cell question through that lens, despite the insistence of Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and others that the morality of the issues is the same.

The willingness of House Republicans to break with DeLay and Bush is strikingly rare. While the House GOP leadership didn't demand party loyalty on the stem-cell vote—freeing members to vote their consciences—Bush made it clear that he would veto the bill if it passed, yet many House Republicans still bucked him.

In part, that may reflect a recognition that public opinion favors increased federal support for stem-cell research, by 50 to 36 percent, according to a Newsweek poll last October.

The rise of an assertive centrist bloc in Congress could change the dynamic of power along Pennsylvania Avenue. In his first term, Bush largely relied on Republican leaders in Congress to enforce party discipline and got almost everything he wanted.

His stature as the war-on-terrorism president seemed to trump Congress' usual instinct to demand respect as an equal branch of government requiring give and take.

Now, despite having won a clear majority in November, Bush could be forced into the kind of bargaining with lawmakers that he ignored in his first term.

"Were a group like this to continue to cooperate this way, we might see the center really take hold," said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. "We're into new territory."

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(EDITORS: In 18th graf, Newsweek poll was taken Oct. 14-15 of 1,004 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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