WASHINGTON -- On the first day of the 108th Congress Tuesday, President Bush and his Democratic adversaries signaled a contentious year ahead. In Chicago, the president unveiled an economic package making clear he is not about to negotiate with himself to avoid criticism. In Washington, Democratic senators kicked off the session by indicating they would give no quarter.
Many of Bush's backers were pleasantly surprised by what he proposed at the Economic Club of Chicago. Instead of a 50 percent cut in the tax on dividends, the president called for total repeal. His acceleration of the 2001 tax cuts rejected counsels of caution that he hold down the cost. Indeed, when the $670 billion price tag was floated late Monday, even supporters gasped in surprise.
At the same time in Washington, the Senate Democratic leadership pulled off a carefully calculated ambush of newly installed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Breaking a deal for a bipartisan unemployment benefits package, the Democrats pushed a greatly expanded bill. It failed, but took the new GOP leader by surprise.
The conduct by both sides reflected the election returns last Nov. 5. Bush was offering a plan so daring it could not have been imagined had Republicans not recaptured control of the Senate. The determination not to permit Frist one day in the sun was born of widespread Democratic feelings that mid-term losses stemmed not from being too liberal but insufficiently aggressive.
The Bush tax package was a recognition of the political reality, often unrecognized by Republicans, that half-a-loaf will generate no less abuse from Democrats than Republicans. To have proposed that the dividend tax be merely halved instead of totally repealed would have sent the signal that Bush is not really sure of himself.
Actually, there was not that much debate inside the Bush administration, particularly after the naysaying Paul O'Neill was sacked as secretary of the Treasury. The Bush plan is largely what Lawrence Lindsey had devised before he, too, was eased out. It is intended for long-term economic growth, not a quickie stimulus. Talking to reporters at his ranch last weekend, the president seemed confused in talking about a Keynesian "stimulus" but did not use the word Tuesday.
Bush was making decisions Monday as his Chicago speech went to press. An important one was deciding not to use this program to transport funds to state capitals, where improvident governors and legislatures had dug a fiscal hole for themselves. Republican as well as Democratic governors had their tin cups out, but the president said no.
If Bush's stubborness was a little surprising, it came as considerably less of a shock than what happened on the Senate floor at about the same time that the president was speaking in Chicago. The first day of a new Congress is normally a time of parties, celebration and good fellowship. It definitely was not on Tuesday.
When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton sought recognition on the floor, it was assumed she was going to speak in behalf of an 18-week extension of unemployment benefits (co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois). Instead, she pushed for an extension of jobless benefits to one million more people.
Planned pandemonium broke out on the Senate floor. Sen. Robert Byrd, the ancient Democratic master of tactics, offered assorted parliamentary impediments. The clear plan was to deny Frist, the bright and shining new Republican face, any gain without pain.
Two tough Republican infighters -- Sens. Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania -- went to the floor to untangle the situation. The original Clinton-Fitzgerald bill finally passed, but not until after two hours of wrangling. Democrats denied that any deal had been made or broken. "They threw a little curve ball," Frist said mildly, "but we hit it out of the park."
Democrats vowed to attach the additional one million recipients of unemployment pay to all manner of legislation, trying to wear down Frist and the new Republican majority. That collides with the determination of a president willing to offer a $670 billion tax cut. It looks like no time for compromise in the nation's capital.