WASHINGTON -- On the first full working day of the new Bush administration, that noise on Capitol Hill sounded like partisan gridlock breaking. But George W. Bush had little to do with it. It was orchestrated by a back-bench Republican senator, Phil Gramm of Texas. It was executed by a freshman Democratic senator, Zell Miller of Georgia.
Astonishment best describes the bipartisan reaction in Congress Monday when Miller appeared at Gramm's side to join in introducing President Bush's across-the-board tax reduction. Congress is so accustomed to the last six years of partisan polarization that Miller's act aroused totally ridiculous speculation that he was about to switch parties. Democratic leaders were understandably alarmed by Miller's apostasy, and key Republicans less understandably grumbled that Gramm was freelancing.
In truth, Miller's break from partisan conformity could transform the climate in Congress. Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle has maintained unprecedented party discipline. If gridlock was going to be broken this year, it was assumed that it would be liberal Republicans breaking away. Zell Miller, with less than a year in the Senate under his belt, is reversing those expectations.
One Democratic senator abandoning ship may signal that many more will follow. They could include fellow freshman moderates Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bill Nelson of Florida. Blanche Lincoln may decide that voting against tax cuts is bad politics in an Arkansas that is increasingly inhospitable to Democrats. John Breaux for once may match his vote with his bipartisan rhetoric, perhaps carrying fellow Louisianan Mary Landrieu with him.
Robert Torricelli of New Jersey long has been ready to vote for tax cuts, and he could open the door to still more Democratic defections. Furthermore, breaking the Democratic monolith could extend well beyond taxes.
Ironically, the 69-year-old Miller, a popular two-term governor of Georgia, thought he was finished with elective politics until last year's untimely death of conservative Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell. Appointed to the vacancy, Miller campaigned for election last fall by promising to follow Coverdell's policies. Washington sophisticates didn't believe him. Georgia voters did.
Miller is no Dixiecrat (Democratic Senators who vote like Republicans are extinct). But he is a fiscal conservative horrified by the spending binge to end last year's congressional session. "When you have a big surplus and big taxes, you need to cut taxes," Miller told me. "There is a huge overpayment in taxes. It's like the Elvis Presley song, 'Return to Sender!'"
Gramm said he was alerted to Miller's attitude by Bush, but this was really the Texas senator's show. Miller was assigned to the Banking Committee headed by Gramm, and they also worked together on a memorial to Coverdell. They conferred during a recent Banking Committee mission to Mexico and decided then to press for the Bush tax cut.
Gramm informed the Bush transition team last Friday that he and Miller would introduce the new president's tax bill on Monday. The Bushies, accustomed to a well-ordered campaign, were appalled. The first Bush week was supposed to be education week. Gramm replied that Miller was ready to go, and there was no point in waiting. Even if the president doesn't understand, Gramm knows that the fate of Bush's presidency has little to do with education reform and instead depends on tax cuts.
Tom Daschle, in his quiet, determined way, expressed displeasure to Miller. More pressure from party leaders is expected by the rookie senator, but he told me, "I'm not going to change." In the House, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas and House Majority Leader Dick Armey grumbled that Gramm was undercutting the constitutional requirement that revenue measures begin in the House.
Actually, Gramm is providing leadership absent from the House GOP. Armey has been privately complaining that Speaker Dennis Hastert is wrong in wanting to cut Bush's tax package into small pieces -- a tactic that made sense only when Bill Clinton was wielding a veto in the White House.
One veteran Senate Republican calls the Gramm-Miller announcement "an amazing event" but fears that Miller will turn out to be another Democratic moderate reneging when his name is called on the roll call. The difference is that Zell Miller seems to mean it, and that could change everything on Capitol Hill.