West Wing Story: Bush Versus The Senate

It's going to take more than hope and a prayer to bring the two sides together in peace. No, not the Israelis and Palestinians, but, rather, the White House and the Senate.

Congress is back from recess this week and the Bush administration has rolled out a new partisan offensive. Yesterday, President Bush swung by a GOP fund-raiser in Greenwich, Conn., where a country-western band called Gunsmoke (incongruously from Darien, an upscale Connecticut town) warmed up the crowd. The music proved a perfect intro for the verbal potshots that followed. Every time the president spoke of some piece of legislation he thought vital, he added, "That bill passed the House ... It stalled in the Senate. Nothing seems to be moving out of the Senate these days."

When he was governor of Texas, Bush prided himself on his friendly relations with Democrats in the State House. Through his personal politicking, he made an ally of the powerful Texas Democrat Bob Bullock. But here in Washington, Bush has made no such friendship. Sen. Edward Kennedy played Bush's Bullock on the No Child Left Behind Act. The bipartisan effort on that education bill, however, proved an exception. Since then, Bush has been much more partisan than he seemed a year ago, when he was doling out nicknames and hosting regular breakfasts for congressional leaders. The breakfasts went well when they dealt with war but seemed to break down on domestic issues. There is a breakfast scheduled at the White House for tomorrow. The last time the leaders broke bread with Bush was Feb. 27.

The White House has not totally given up on the Democrat-controlled Senate. But Bush has made it a priority to win back the majority for his party. He's even gotten involved in Senate primary races in a few states where the local GOP would rather not have him taking sides between party faithful. He is also digging in his heels on presidential appointees. While Congress was away, Bush circumvented the congressional-approval process and made five more "recess appointments" to his administration. Perhaps the most controversial was Gerald Reynolds, a young African-American lawyer whom Bush picked to head the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education. Reynolds had met resistance on the Hill because he is not a supporter of affirmative action.

Much to Bush's chagrin, there is no such thing as a recess appointment to the federal court. His stalled judicial nominees rankle him most. Bush lost his battle to get Judge Charles Pickering Sr. appointed to the federal appeals court. He's still steaming over it, but he refuses to pick less-conservative judges. This week he dispatched Dick Cheney to take aim at the Senate over the courts. At a dedication of the circuit courthouse in Washington on Monday, the vice president gave a blistering speech. He quoted Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist, who has called the judicial vacancy rate "alarming." "Vice," as Bush calls Cheney, explained that Bush nominated almost 100 judges in his first year, but that there are still more vacancies on the bench than there were when he took office. Then he hit his target: "The Senate has failed to do its part."

There's no love lost between Cheney and the Hill. For all his years in the House, Cheney believes Congress has gotten too powerful. Way back when he was deputy chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, Cheney opposed Ford going to the Hill to justify his pardon of Richard Nixon. Vice and Bush are on a mission to re-establish presidential power. They have drawn a line in the sand. That's why they have refused to turn over the energy-task-force documents that the General Accounting Office is suing them for. The task force itself was designed with the help of the White House counsel's office to avoid congressional prying and legal challenges.

Gov. Tom Ridge's position as the head of homeland security was also designed with privacy in mind. Since he's technically an "assistant to the president" much like national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Ridge does not have to answer to Congress the way a cabinet secretary would. There has been a lot of bickering between the Hill and the White House in the last few weeks over whether Ridge should have to "testify." The Bushies said he was under no obligation to give sworn testimony. They have finally worked out a compromise: Ridge will "brief" a congressional subcommittee on security matters today.

It's not just the Democrats who are complaining about a lack of information from the White House. GOP stalwarts Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott have grumbled that even they aren't being dialed in enough. The breakfast meeting tomorrow may jump-start communications. It isn't just nominees and legislation that are at stake. Bush needs all the support he can get as he grapples with another war in the Middle East.