WASHINGTON -- Ever since Al Gore conceded the election, the buzz has spread through the capital that George W. Bush's biggest problem in Congress is his fellow Texas Republican, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. If the president-elect buys into that theme, his regime will be neutered. That indeed is the fervent desire of the Democratic Party.
"Their purpose is to drive a wedge between me and George W. Bush," DeLay told me Friday as the lame-duck session of Congress ended. What was the attitude in Austin? DeLay didn't know. When I asked one of Bush's closest political advisers, he replied: "Let them try. There's no wedge."
It does seem elementary. DeLay, strongman of the House, is proposing nothing that Bush did not advocate during his campaign or wants passed now. DeLay buys entirely into Bush's conservative five-point program: education improvement, tax cuts, Social Security reform, Medicare repair and rebuilding the U.S. military.
But post-election "bipartisan" obsession is not interested in passing Bush's bills. The bipartisan program being pressed on Bush is actually Democratic proposals not passed by President Clinton the last six years. DeLay's definition of bipartisanship, as envisioned by House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt: "Buy into my partisanship."
While officially only the third-ranking Republican in the House, DeLay is the master strategist in a party shy on strategy. Just before the election, liberal columnist Mark Shields wrote that Bush, if victorious, owed DeLay a thank-you note for stopping a 1998 censure movement of Bill Clinton that would have freed him -- and Vice President Gore -- from dealing with impeachment. This year, DeLay's tactics blocked another ugly omnibus spending bill that would have depressed the Republican voting base in 2000 as it did in 1998 -- and cost Bush the presidency.
Indeed, DeLay was still trying to save money in the lame-duck session by sidetracking a spending bill fulfilling President Clinton's wish list. Meeting reporters in his office Dec. 6, DeLay reiterated that there would be no government shutdown. But when asked whether Clinton would veto a bill to keep the government open, DeLay replied: "Well, if he wants to shut down the government that's his problem, not ours."
DeLay could not convince his colleagues in the House GOP leadership, and an obese spending bill with a 26 percent increase was passed Friday. Nevertheless, DeLay's remarks facilitated his continued demonization on the House floor Dec. 8 by Democratic congressmen. Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the tart-tongued senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, challenged Republicans to "bring the gentleman from Texas to the table, let him lay out what it is exactly he wants other than blaming Mr. Clinton for shutting down the government."
This round of DeLay-bashing actually was triggered by a Republican, Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware, when he described himself as "alarmed" by DeLay. Castle has been conferring with Democrats close to their party's leadership: Reps. Tim Roemer of Indiana and Ellen Tauscher of California.
Castle promotes a bipartisanship congenial to the Gephardt leadership. DeLay's brand is quite different. He wants to mobilize those Democrats who in the last Congress opposed Gephardt on tax cuts (including 48 on the marriage tax repeal and 65 on the estate tax repeal). This time there would be no Clinton veto.
The House, Senate and White House all in Republican hands for the first time since 1953-54 makes DeLay giddy. "I have waited 22 years for this January," he told me.
Not much was accomplished during brief Republican control 48 years ago by a President Dwight D. Eisenhower new to politics and a Congress in GOP hands for the first time since 1929-30. Half a century later, Republican congressional leaders have six tough years of experience. They relish working with Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, who as House Republican Whip named Tom DeLay to be his chief lieutenant.
But what about Bush and DeLay? Their relationship began in 1994 when DeLay, a former pest exterminator, pressed the new governor for appointments to the Texas Structural Pest Control Board. They recently chatted on the telephone, with DeLay kidding Bush about cutting his victory too close. The new president's success depends on whether they keep smiling.