Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- George Bush was asked last week whether he had become irrelevant in the decisions of government, a question that has been posed before in previous presidencies.

The suggestion came from a reporter at a White House news conference who must have been out of the country for most of the year -- because the president clearly remains a force to be reckoned with in the twilight of his second term in office.

If the Democrats thought they were going to come charging into power in January and impose their agenda on the Republican minority and the administration, they were sorely mistaken.

Bush has won a number of key victories this year on the conduct of the Iraq war, the sweep of the intelligence surveillance program to keep us safe from another terrorist attack and in the ongoing battle over spending.

So the question must have vexed him during a press briefing in which he criticized the do-nothing Democratic Congress for failing to complete its business in the nine months it has been running Congress.

Ironically, the relevance question came on the day it was learned the White House had reached agreement with Democrats and Republicans in the Senate on an anti-terror surveillance program that contained a major provision Bush has fought to include.

That provision would give legal immunity to telecommunications firms that cooperate with government requests to tap into terrorist e-mails and telephone conversations to their cells in this country.

Bush insisted on giving the telecommunications industry this protection, among other provisions the Democrats opposed. The measure still faces rough sledding, but it is an example of how Bush is exerting his influence behind the scenes on a pivotal national-security issue.

Earlier this year, House Democrats brought a surveillance bill to the House floor aimed at restricting the government's abilities to spy on the activities of terrorists. But under intense Republican opposition and heavy lobbying by the White House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to yank the bill off the floor in an embarrassing defeat for the new Democratic leadership.

The Washington Post said last week that the Democrats' retreat on their bill "marked the first time since Democrats took control of the chamber that a major bill was withdrawn from consideration before a scheduled vote." That doesn't sound like an irrelevant president to me.

During this year's skirmishes over this issue, Bush killed a Democratic surveillance bill not to his liking and forced Congress to pass a temporary measure, while both sides worked out their disagreements.

Obviously, Bush isn't feeling irrelevant. "Quite the contrary," he said. "I've never felt more engaged and more capable of helping people recognize ... that there's a lot of unfinished business."

One way to exert his relevance is the veto, a tool the Founding Fathers gave to the presidency to prevent bad legislation from becoming law, and he has begun using it with deadly effectiveness.

He has vetoed Democratic legislation to micromanage the war in Iraq and to impose troop-withdrawal timelines, vetoes the Democrats have been unable to override.

More recently, he vetoed the Democrats' attempt to boost spending for the State Children's Health Insurance Program by an additional $35 billion over five years that would have more than doubled its funding.

Bush has proposed a 20 percent hike in the SCHIP program that would add 500,000 low-income children to the program, and as this is written, it appeared the Democrats did not have the votes to override his veto in the House.

Meantime, none of the 12 annual appropriations bills have been passed, even though the government is more than two weeks into the new fiscal year. Bush is threatening to veto most, if not all, of them if they exceed his spending limits, but for now he has stymied the Democrats' propensity to spend like there's no tomorrow.

To be sure, Bush's job-approval polls remain in the basement, largely due to the war, but Congress' job-approval scores are worse. Perhaps it is the Democrats who have become irrelevant, or at least impotent.

He has had successes elsewhere this year. The deficit has plummeted as a result of much higher-than-expected tax revenues and the application of spending brakes by the Office of Management and Budget.

The military surge in Iraq has succeeded in driving the terrorists out of key provinces, while giving the Iraqis time to strengthen their own military as Gen. David Petraeus prepares to withdraw some of our forces in the next six months.

On the diplomatic front, we have persuaded North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program as efforts toward a preliminary relationship between North and South Korea have begun to make some tentative headway.

All of these things did not happen by accident, but were the result of strategic decisions made by Bush and carried out by his administration. Mischievous suggestions by underinformed White House reporters that he has grown increasingly irrelevant are a bit premature at this point.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.