WASHINGTON -- Getting any major legislation through Congress in an election year is difficult at best. Expect nothing less this time around.
By the time you read this, President Bush would have delivered his upbeat State of the Union pep talk to lawmakers and the nation. In it, he has laid out his priorities for the country, and now comes the hard part: moving must-pass bills through a thorny political obstacle course at a time when Bush's second-term job-approval polls are at a low ebb, according to most national polls, and the public is losing faith in the Republican-run Congress.
Two fault lines will make it harder to get much work done this year: the midterm election battle for control of Congress will be hotter than ever, and a truncated congressional calendar that is more focused on going home to campaign than enduring lengthy legislative debate.
With polls suggesting that the voters may be ready to trim the GOP's majority in the House, if not the Senate, too, Democrats will be focused on scoring political points, slowing the process and preventing as many bills as they can from reaching Bush's desk.
Political history suggests the party out of power usually makes gains in the midway point of a second presidential term, and election trackers are predicting some erosion in the Republican majority. The jury is still out on that, but the warning flags are up. The GOP's polls have hit a soft patch as a result of the influence-peddling scandals.
Ground zero for the first phase of the midterm election battle will be the Republican agenda, and the Democrats' strategy will be to block and delay any bill they can in the Senate, which became the burial ground for much of Bush's agenda last year.
Then there is the congressional calendar, which is filled with recesses, congressional district "work periods," summer vacations and assorted days off. One look at it and it's easy to see that there's not much time to do what Bush wants done, let alone last year's leftovers.
"The calendar says they will be in session for 120 days, but when you subtract Mondays and Fridays, which are travel days, that drops to 74, so it's a very short playing field," says Bruce Josten, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's chief lobbyist. "At some point you have to see what's politically achievable. "The real work period is going to be March through July. Then they are gone in August, gearing up big time in September and adjournment day is Oct. 6 to get out of here to campaign," Josten told me. "What time is there to tackle all that needs to be done?"
At the top of the must-pass list is a multi-year reauthorization of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act that was blocked last year by Senate Democrats. Then there is a budget bill that that faces similar political obstacles, including a GOP revolt in the House where conservatives are pushing for deeper cuts in pork and entitlement programs.
One difference this year is the administration's retreat from huge reform bills after Bush's failure to move his Social Security overhaul plan, despite a vigorous presidential lobbying campaign. "That's created a chilling effect on the desire to move an ambitious, comprehensive agenda and may deter Republicans from engaging in a fundamental health care reform debate or tax reform debate," said Michael Franc, vice president for government affairs at the Heritage Foundation.
The clearest signal that big policy reforms were off the table came from the White House's decision to shelve the sweeping overhaul of the federal tax system that a blue-ribbon presidential commission produced last year.
Instead, Bush is focusing on making his existing tax cuts permanent. They are due to expire near the end of this decade, and the chances of embedding them into the tax code appear bleak.
"Making the tax cuts permanent will be a donnybrook up on the Hill," Josten said. "That's going to be a very tough thing to pull off."
Meanwhile, the increasing legislative backup of other proposals sought by Bush's Republican base looks like rush-hour traffic on the Washington Beltway.
The business community, facing crushing oil prices, wants new energy legislation to drill for natural gas and oil on the Outer Continental Shelf and build more refineries and nuclear power plants. Social conservatives want action on a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and an end to the tax penalty for married working couples.
In the end, Bush and Republican lawmakers will do well this year if they can focus on a few narrow goals: Re-enact the Patriot Act, slow the rate of spending growth, extend the capital gains and dividend tax rate to keep the economy humming, and move quickly on a sensible lobbying reform bill.
That would be a decent year's work to run on in November and, who knows, maybe even improve Congress's poor job-approval scores.