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. …