The President's power

Robert Novak

11/18/2002 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- Republican leaders of Congress are leaving the capital surprised, a bit dazed and not entirely happy about the short but eventful lame-duck session of Congress. George W. Bush, buoyed by the election returns of Nov. 5, called the tune as never before, with meaningful implications for the future. The GOP leadership of both the House and Senate wanted to do as little as possible and then leave town soon after they returned following the mid-term election. President Bush had other plans. He forced passage of two long-stalled bills -- creating a Department of Homeland Security and providing terrorism insurance -- which the legislative leaders wanted to leave for the new Congress convening in January. Whatever the legislation's merits, Bush for seven days in November exhibited a presidential will to dominate Congress not seen since Lyndon Johnson. That, along with Republican recapture of the Senate, promises an altered Washington next year. Sept. 11, 2001, brought forth a new George W. Bush, and Nov. 5, 2002, appears to have yielded a newer Bush. Congress, immobilized by a Democratic Senate confronting a Republican House, sleepwalked into a lame-duck session nobody really wanted. Failing to complete appropriations bills, the lawmakers had to come back to keep the government running well into January (when the new Congress would be serious) by passing a continuing resolution. Nobody regarded Bush's exhortations to pass the homeland security and terrorism insurance bills as more than mid-term campaign oratory. Two of the Democratic Party's key pressure groups still barred the way. Organized labor insisted on protections in the Homeland Security department for government workers unions. Trial lawyers insisted on the right of terrorism victims to sue for punitive damages. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott publicly opted for an abbreviated lame-duck session, asserting that bad things could happen in this relic of the American past. In particular, he said, there was no point taking up homeland security against the opposition of Sen. Robert Byrd, master of the parliamentary wrecking ball. Anyway, there was no point giving Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, facing a December runoff election in Louisiana, a chance to vote for the bill. Lott and House Speaker Dennis Hastert were invited to lunch with the president on Friday, Nov. 8. Before that, the two legislative leaders met on Capitol Hill. They agreed to stand firm against any action on homeland security. But over the White House luncheon table, they encountered a different George W. Bush. He insisted on passage of the bill he had berated Democratic senators for stalling, driving Sen. Max Cleland to defeat in Georgia. Lott and Hastert agreed. The House-passed bill, giving the president full authority over the new department's employees, quickly overcame Robert Byrd and other Senate obstacles that had tied up the bill for months. The government guarantee for terrorism insurance posed a different problem. Republican leaders, especially House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, complained that White House lobbyist Nick Calio had ignored them in cutting a deal with the Democrats. The right to sue for punitive damages was retained, while restricted to federal courts. In a heated White House meeting Wednesday, Nov. 13, GOP legislative leaders protested that the Calio deal was abject surrender. Bush came right back at them, arguing that the urgent need to unfreeze major construction forced compromises. The leaders submitted. Late that night, the House Rules Committee cleared the bill for floor action. The White House did suffer a defeat Thursday when a combination of liberals and anti-abortion conservatives defeated a bankruptcy reform bill, but Bush himself was not personally involved. Thanks to the president, the lame-duck session accomplished more than anybody thought possible. Nevertheless, skeptical Republicans ask, to what avail? Apart from defeating the government workers unions, the homeland security bill is not a favorite in GOP ranks. The party leaders say a much better deal on punitive damages could have been reached in the next session of Congress. The real question is what the president does in the next session of Congress with his newfound power. Will he press for action on a lengthy agenda of conservative reform? Or will he make dubious concessions to get something done as he did on terrorism insurance?