WASHINGTON -- For the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, George W. Bush last week laid aside the mantle of non-partisan commander-in-chief. He decided he must prevent his economic stimulus program from widening doors that have opened to profligate government spending. The problem is that the president may have moved too late -- and too passively.
On Wednesday morning, a high-level meeting of presidential advisers decided it was necessary to actively pursue and improve the stimulus package, and President Bush later in the day publicly pleaded for support. That same day, Bush told Republican congressional leaders summoned to the White House that he cannot tolerate stimulus legislation being turned into a spending spree. But when asked whether he would veto excessive spending, the president declined to use the "v" word.
In the absence of such clarity, Bush's credibility is at issue. "There's going to be an effort to test him to see where he will hold the line," Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott told me. The ironic question: can the president, at 90 percent popularity, be as effective in winning legislation from Congress as he was before Sept. 11 when his rating hovered around 50 percent?
Bush perceived a new political climate following the terrorist attack as bringing Washington closer to the bipartisanship that he loved in Austin. The president, seeking a unified nation to lead against terrorism, abjured partisanship. Declining to campaign for hard-pressed Republican candidates in off-year elections, he also avoided strong legislative positions.
But Washington still is not Austin. While Bush was rousing the spirits of an angry and frightened America, Congress was doing what it likes best: spending money. Lawmakers who two months ago expressed outrage at even touching the so-called Social Security surplus now have roared through it and, indeed, the whole triple-digit budget surplus. The current fiscal year's deficit, as measured by Capitol Hill numbers crunchers, is $50 billion and counting.
Bush's post-Sept. 11 strategy was to let the House and Senate work their will on the stimulus package and then, in the phrase fancied by insiders, "parachute in" to draft an acceptable bill in a Senate-House conference committee. That plan's flaw: by last week it seemed certain the Bush parachutists could not cope with the twin monstrosities on either side of the Capitol.
The House Republican bill opted for corporatist tax windfalls, while balking at across-the-board incentives. The Senate's Democratic leaders, while seeking tax cuts to redistribute income, eagerly added to the $40 billion in spending quickly passed with Bush's approval. Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, the legendary master of pork, is pushing for another $40 billion. An insurance industry bailout may cost $20 billion more. Pet projects with no stimulative value (such as COBRA, federal extension of lapsed health insurance plans) are being pressed.
Is this a spending orgy? "I would say orgy is an understatement," a Bush Cabinet member answered me, while declining to be quoted. Accordingly, Republican lobbyists who informally advise the White House contended that the stimulus package was now so misshapen that it had best be scrapped. Lawrence Lindsey, Bush's National Economic Council director, went into orbit. Stimulative tax cuts had already been factored into the nation's investment plans, Lindsey warned. To kill them now, he said, threatened a stock market collapse and a deeper recession.
It was decided at last Wednesday's meeting that instead of parachuting in at the last minute, the president would now press a Senate bill to his liking. He much prefers the Senate Republican version, which, unlike the House-passed measure, includes upper-bracket tax incentives and eliminates retroactive corporate tax breaks. Accordingly, a routine Bush speech to the National Association of Manufacturers was transformed into the event of the day, boosting his version of stimulus.
Lawmakers who heard the president's stern lecture on spending Wednesday were not as impressed as they would have been had he specifically threatened vetoes. So blatant an approach, he feels, is not in keeping with a non-partisan role in waging the war against terrorism. War presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed a hard political stance in dealing with a fractious Congress, a lesson George W. Bush is starting to learn but has not mastered.