Congress as usual

Posted: Apr 03, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, normally a steadfast Republican ally of George W. Bush, has conveyed around Capitol Hill what can only be interpreted as a threat. If the White House succeeds in removing transportation money that Bond placed in the budget resolution, he and his friends will vote against -- and presumably defeat -- the measure's final version. So much for Congress standing fast with the president in wartime.

President Bush's current troubles in Congress are generally laid at the door of a few Republican moderates leveraging themselves against tax cuts and other conservative proposals. In fact, Bond shows the problem transcends ideology and influences many issues. This is the syndrome that afflicted Democratic war presidents -- Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson -- in the 20th century.

As a president becomes engrossed in day-to-day war management, lawmakers see a chance to dominate domestic policy. The Bush who parlayed his mid-term election triumph by cracking the whip during last year's lame-duck session of Congress seems a distant memory. As a war leader, he devotes ever less time to taming legislators -- who happily act on their own.

Beyond widely noted Republican defections on tax reduction, Alaska oil drilling and the faith-based initiative, unexpected GOP dissidents are emerging on more mundane issues. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri, a dependable party regular, leads the charge against Bush's plans to take money out of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to operate ports, dams and locks. That would imperil Army Corps of Engineers projects beloved by members of Congress.

In the Senate last Friday, Republican leaders themselves ignored White House pleas to hold the line and agreed on $2.8 billion in aid for airlines. Sen. Trent Lott, the former majority leader, sponsored the package, with approval from Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens and Majority Leader Bill Frist. The administration's concern about a bailout pattern for other distressed industries went unheeded.

Bond's role in multiplying transportation money reflects how a war can weaken a president's domestic authority. Spending on roads is an ancient form of government pork, especially popular with lawmakers challenged for re-election. Bond, who wins by relatively narrow margins in a traditional swing state, is up for a fourth term next year. As a member of both the Appropriations and Public Works committees, he is well placed to guarantee lots of roads for Missouri.

Bond joined with Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the tenaciously partisan Democratic whip, to explode the Bush budget. Bond and Reid found five principal co-sponsors, ranging from Oklahoma's Republican James Inhofe on the Right to Washington's Patty Murray on the Left and including the Senate's inimitable King of Pork, Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

They added $49 billion for highways and $12.5 billion for mass transit over six years. When the budget reached the Senate floor, the Bond-Reid proposal had more than 70 co-sponsors. The only wonder is that the subsequent 79 to 21 vote for approval was not even larger.

George W. Bush holds few cards in this game. If he can trim highway and transit spending significantly in the Senate-House budget conference, he figures to win only a Pyrrhic victory. Assuming that Bond meant what he said, Republican defections in the closely held Senate would defeat the budget resolution -- and, with it, chances for tax cuts. The alternative is to give a spending green light to a Republican-controlled Congress that is no less addicted to pork than its Democratic predecessor.

Bush might have been well advised to try talking his friend and supporter Kit Bond into tightening his highway belt, but war presidents seldom find much time for domestic arm-twisting. One who did was Lyndon Johnson. The LBJ tapes show that the president who personally selected Vietnamese bombing targets also was constantly on the telephone to Capitol Hill, pleading and cajoling.

It did not do much good, however. Johnson had fought the internecine struggle from both ends of Pennsylvania Ave., and knew the inbred desire of Congress to override a president. When war comes, it is business as usual for lawmakers to take advantage of a preoccupied chief executive, and they are just acting naturally today.