Cracks Are Now Showing in Congress's Unified Surface ; Leaders of Both Parties Scramble to Bridge Deep Divisions on Energy Policy, Tax Cuts, and Trade

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When congressional leaders sit with President Bush to talk about how to make the nation safe or the economy sound, the bipartisan spirit is real.

So is the respect. Congress has soared in public esteem since its members stood shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Bush in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

But the circle of those cutting new bipartisan deals has shrunk sharply in the last month. Many members are frustrated by all the closed meetings and briefings that tell them less than the newspapers do. In the new "unity" Congress, they don't count, and the strain is showing.

On issues such as tax cuts, trade, and energy, deep divisions are testing the new spirit of statesmanship. It's more than old-style partisanship reasserting itself. It's also a struggle within parties for members to find a role at a time of national crisis, when all signals are for strong direction from the top.

Conservative Republicans are chafing at a bipartisan economic- stimulus strategy they see coming out of the White House. In the Senate, leaders on both sides of the aisle spend their days "putting down insurrections," says Minority Leader Trent Lott.

"On an hourly basis, we're seeing the bipartisan harmony being severely challenged," says Marshall Wittmann, an analyst for the Hudson Institute here.

One of the hottest points of contention is the shape of a new stimulus package to revive the economy. Discussions had been proceeding on high-level, bipartisan lines. In a surprise move, the top four budget leaders in both parties announced agreement last week on a common set of numbers for how much of the budget surplus had been spent - and how much was about to be spent.

It's no trivial accomplishment. Partisan firestorms had raged for months around the issue of how much Social Security surplus had been spent - and who was to blame. In the interest of maintaining public confidence in Congress at a time of crisis, they laid down their swords, they said.

But House Republicans broke ranks last week, when it looked like Democratic priorities - such as more spending - were gaining ground. Conservative Republicans wanted more tax cuts for business. They worried that in the interest of bipartisanship, the White House was cutting them out.

"Groups like ours were absolutely frustrated that the White House appeared to be triangulating out the conservatives by being bipartisan," says Stephen Moore, head of Club for Growth, which has close ties to many conservative in Congress. …