WASHINGTON -- "Welcome to the second term, Mr. President!" said one of George W. Bush's most important Republican supporters in the House of Representatives. He was not directly addressing President Bush but explaining to me the new political climate. Re-elected and at the top of his game, Bush has seen his wishes ignored by the House in not passing the intelligence reform bill so far.
It is indeed a different world on Capitol Hill since Nov. 2. Loyal Bushites are newly candid -- though not for public attribution -- in criticizing the president's performance on intel reform. They say a word from the White House is no longer sufficient because Bush's political fate no longer is paramount for them. He never again must be tested by the voters, even as House members undergo that ordeal biennially. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution has rendered Bush a lame duck.
This makes the president's legislative function vastly more difficult. While Bush has laid out an ambitious conservative agenda for the second term, his poor performance on the intelligence bill suggests to his partisans on the Hill the need for an adjustment to reality at the White House. Thanks to the 22nd Amendment blues, it will be much harder to pass bills far more difficult than intel reform.
Actually, the Bush team never dreamed it would have to cope with the intelligence bill once Congress recessed for the election. The president's men thought they had just dodged a bullet. They never liked the idea of the independent 9/11 commission headed by former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, and resented Kean and his fellow commissioners warning that blood would be on the hands of Congress and the president if terrorists struck again without a reform bill passed. But non-passage of the bill was eclipsed by other events, especially Osama bin Laden's tape, before the election.
It was widely presumed that comprehensive reform of intelligence would be considered at a more contemplative pace in the new Congress convening in January. Nobody thought the truncated post-election session of the old Congress would take up the bill until House Speaker Dennis Hastert so ordained. Inside House Republican cloakrooms, that decision (pressed on the speaker by his chief of staff, Scott Palmer) was judged a mistake.
Hastert also erred in two of his five selections for the conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills: Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter and Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner. They are intrepid conservatives but not negotiators. Colleagues fondly regard Hunter as probably the worst negotiator in the House.
It was not that the president was inactive after the election. He telephoned Sensenbrenner and sent Vice President Dick Cheney to see him. But there was no full-court press. "This should be a lesson for the president," a member of the House leadership told me. "Going half-way won't work." At least, it won't work in the second term.
Thus, on the weekend before Thanksgiving, Bush found himself supporting a bill that barely would have passed the House with overwhelming Democratic support and substantial Republican opposition. That would have been a horrible second-term start for the president, and Hastert wisely pulled the bill off the floor.
The last chance for the reform package in the 108th Congress comes Monday when the lame-duck session reconvenes. Sen. Susan Collins, the lead Senate Republican conferee, has called on House Republicans to support their president (audacious coming from a Maine liberal who has consistently opposed Bush's tax proposals) and has declared the conference closed with no more negotiations possible. If she doesn't re-open the conference, the bill may not pass until the Fourth of July. Families of 9/11 victims are staging candlelight vigils to pass the bill, but the effectiveness of such tactics ended Nov. 2.
Even though Tom Kean is again making blood threats if the bill is not passed, waiting until next year to reconsider such a complicated bill may be prudent. Meanwhile, the Bush White House -- which is not high on introspection -- might consider the president's ineffectiveness and think about avoiding these mistakes on legislation he really cares about.