Congressional Republicans are in for a rude awakening today. This is the first working day of a Republican presidency since they gained control of Congress in 1994. With Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, Republicans have been free for the last 6 years to go their own way, set their own agenda and play the role of loyal opposition. But starting today, none of that is true any longer. They are no longer free to go their own way, they will not set the agenda and cannot any longer oppose the administration at will because their man, George W. Bush, is now in the White House.
As important as Congress is, the fact is that the president ultimately calls the shots. This is especially the case when a president of one's own party is in the White House. Reality dictates that he sets the agenda, that the opposition party negotiates almost exclusively with the White House on major issues and that the role of the president's party in Congress is to shut up and do as it's told.
The point is that Republicans in Congress have luxuriated in their freedom for so long, they are in for a big shock the first time Bush tells them things are going to be done his way, not theirs. There is going to be deep resentment in certain quarters for a time, while Republicans get used to their new role as waterboys for the White House. But they will quickly come around when they see liberals exploiting every difference of opinion to create cleavages among Republicans, better to defeat conservative legislation. And I have no doubt that Bush will be very convincing when he tells his friends in Congress to be cooperative.
It is too soon to say how difficult the culture shock will be. Already we are seeing reporters going to Treasury Secretary-designate Paul O'Neill to find out what is going to happen with tax policy in the 107th Congress, rather than House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., or Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. They know that on tax policy, the president's party in Congress always follows the Treasury's lead.
Tax policy may turn out to be the issue where George W. Bush shows who is boss and Republicans in Congress discover that their clout has fallen by a big notch. Bush has a tax plan developed during the campaign by his advisers, and he has said it is still his tax plan. O'Neill said that it will be sent to Congress for consideration within a few weeks.
Republicans in Congress, however, have their own tax legislative priorities and their own ideas about what should be done and how they should proceed. For example, House Speaker Dennis Hastert has suggested passing Bush's plan in pieces, rather than all at once -- a suggestion Bush rejects.
Of course, Bush knows that no president ever gets exactly what he asks for. Changes and compromises are always needed in major legislation. The questions are how much change and how much compromise? Some Republican congressional leaders seem to think that Bush will be open to large-scale changes in his tax plan. They believe Bush will negotiate with them even on fundamental elements of it. I am not so sure.
The one thing I know from having worked in the White House and seen it operate from Capitol Hill as well is that presidents want first and foremost to be seen as being in charge and winning their showdowns with Congress. Sometimes this causes them to give away the store to their opponents, just so they can get something out of Congress and thereby claim victory. Examples of this were the many budget deals passed during the Reagan and Bush administrations, which conformed largely to the Democrats' priorities.
Other times, presidents stand in concrete and won't negotiate at all. Examples of this were Jimmy Carter's first energy plan in 1977 and Bill Clinton's health care initiative in 1993. Both failed spectacularly even though Democrats controlled both houses of Congress by comfortable margins. They miscalculated that this relieved them of the necessity for give-and-take, making defeat inevitable. These defeats were doubly costly because, coming in the first year of their administrations. It made dealings with Congress more difficult for years afterward.
I think that the Bush people know this. They also know that a big early victory, such as Ronald Reagan had in 1981 on his tax cut, can strengthen a president's hand immeasurably during his entire tenure in office. That is the model I think they will try to follow, which means that the stakes are very high for Bush's first major legislative initiative. If it is a tax bill and Bush allows Congress to get the upper hand, he will be handicapped on every other initiative he hopes to enact. Therefore, he cannot afford to lose and will not make the mistakes Carter and Clinton made on their maiden forays into the legislative battleground.
Whatever happens, Republicans in Congress are going to find their jobs very different from now on. Today, they are undoubtedly overjoyed to have Bill Clinton gone and their own man at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But soon they will find that there are costs as well as benefits to controlling the White House. Bush's success as president may hinge on how quickly his allies in Congress adapt to their changing role.