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Democratic discipline delaying top Bush administration priorities

WASHINGTON—With time running out for Congress this year, Democrats are displaying rare unity and influencing the legislative agenda in ways that were unimaginable during President Bush's first term.

Their cohesion, together with rebellion from some moderate and maverick Republicans, was evident Wednesday as lawmakers continued to frustrate Bush's agenda on anti-terrorism legislation, foreign-detainee policies and oil drilling in Alaska's wildlife refuge.

Republican leaders also are on the verge of delaying nearly $100 billion in tax-cutting legislation to next year, depriving the party of a signature issue as it heads into the 2006 elections. Republican leaders downplayed the hitch, arguing that there was no urgency to act now.

"The difference in whether it gets done in December or March—probably not much difference in economic impact," said Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the acting Republican leader in the House of Representatives.

Faced with unyielding Democratic opposition, House and Senate negotiators also were making little progress Wednesday on a package of budget cuts that would reduce spending on food stamps and other anti-poverty programs by $35 billion. Democrats also showed no cracks in their opposition to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Republican moderates who joined them were standing fast as well.

Wednesday evening, the House handed Bush yet another setback, endorsing bipartisan legislation that would ban cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of foreign detainees. It also would require all branches of government—from the Army to the CIA—to follow the same interrogation standards.

The Senate approved the provision 90-9 in October. White House officials have been negotiating with its lead sponsor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to ease some of the restrictions.

Wednesday's House vote, initiated by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., instructed House and Senate negotiators who are working on a defense spending bill to include the McCain language in the final bill.

One bright note for Republicans was House passage Wednesday of the Patriot Act, extending the four-year-old anti-terrorism law that expanded certain law enforcement powers. But despite a 251-174 victory in the House, the bill quickly ran into a buzz saw in the Senate, where a coalition of Democrats and Republicans who are worried about an erosion of civil liberties was preparing to block its passage.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was expected to seek a vote to end debate on the bill Friday. That would require 60 votes in the 100-member Senate. It was unclear how many of the Senate's 44 Democrats—and one independent, who usually votes with them—were prepared to vote to continue debate and thus block the bill.

"It's the first time I can recall in years that they've been so united," Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., a leader of moderate House Republicans, said of the Democrats.

He credited their unity with giving leverage to moderate Republicans, who often were ignored throughout Bush's first term, when Republican leaders and the White House could count on conservative and moderate Democrats to cross party lines.

Democratic strategists said the party turned the tables on Republicans during this year's debate over Social Security. Democrats refused to offer any alternative to Bush's proposal for individual savings accounts. Instead, they simply portrayed the plan as the beginning of the end of Social Security.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California instructed their members to stand fast against the president. Reid named Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., a moderate who'd sided with Bush on tax-cutting legislation, to be the party's point man on Social Security, preventing him from seeking his own compromise.

Bush had trouble convincing enough Republicans to support his plan, and without any Democratic allies, it succumbed.

"When a Democrat is finally given an opportunity to offer a substantive amendment around here, they (Republicans) in block vote against it," said Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, a Democrat who's been a reliable Republican vote. "They have lost what the average Joe would call the benefit of the doubt."

Or as a Senate Democratic leadership aide said: "We used to be the party of legislation; now we're the party of message." The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity because she isn't permitted to discuss party strategy publicly.

Rep. David Dreier of California, a member of the House Republican leadership team, said the Democrats' recent successes had been the result of Bush's low approval numbers, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"The Democratic leadership was able to say to Democratic members, `Aha! We kick them when they're dealing with challenges and difficulties and all.'"

He predicted that that would change as Bush's approval ratings rose.

Castle, while admiring Democratic discipline, complained that the minority still refuses to offer legislative ideas.

"They still don't have an agenda," he said. "They're missing the other side of the equation. It's a total blank."


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

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