- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

Bush consolidates the Republican vote Capitol Hill buzzed last week with reports that Sen. Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, might offer a $700 billion Medicare prescription drug amendment as a substitute for tax- cut legislation. The Kennedy amendment would combine the money in the Republican budget for Medicare prescription drugs and tax-cuts, and would ask a simple question: Tax cuts for the rich or prescription drugs for seniors? Democrats also signaled their intention this week to filibuster the nomination of Pricilla Owen for U.S. Circuit Court. Along with judicial nominee Miguel Estrada, the subject of an ongoing filibuster, it is the only time the Senate filibustered Court of Appeals nominations.It is only May 1, but the spring political thunderstorms are already rocking the Capitol.President Bush campaigned on the theme of changing the tone in Washington, arguing bipartisan musicmaking depended on the White House’s ability to carry a cooperative tune. Yet, so far this year, the legislative dance has created more dissonance than harmony. Singing a song of their own, Democrats appear tone-deaf when it comes to cooperating with the White House. After more than two years in office, it’s clear to President Bush that legislative collaboration is not a solo act. When it comes to bipartisanship, it takes two to tango.While some blame the discord on Democratic senators behaving badly, the real answer is more complex. Part of the explanation has electoral roots, another part is the fractious politics of interest groups, and the Senate’s peculiar folkways are a third factor. Nonetheless, although stepping on toes does not make for smooth waltzing between the White House and the Senate, current Democratic tactics have even more ominous implications for that party’s prospects to win the majority dance contest among American voters. While many pundits blame the poisonous partisanship on lawmakers, there is another, non-obvious culprit — the American voter. After three decades of declining voter attachment to political parties following World War II, partisanship in the electorate returned vigorously during the 1980s and 1990s. Legislators, following voter cues, find it harder to bridge the partisan divide. Political scientists like Gary Jacobson agree. He notes in a recent article, “Party loyalty is not out of step with the policy preferences of the constituents they represent: Members of Congress and individual citizens have become more polarized along party lines. Polarization in Congress reflects a more partisan electorate.” Hence, part of the breakdown between the White House and Senate Democrats is directly traceable to a widening partisan gulf between the two parties.These electoral inclinations are not the makings of a bipartisan opus. Yet, trends among interest groups also undermine Democratic comity with President Bush. Research shows Democratic-leaning special interest group activists, such as trial lawyers, environmentalists or union members, are more opposed to the president’s policies than non-activist, self-identified partisans. Yet, activists shape the agenda, give money and are intimately involved in the machinery of Democratic politics.The dirty little secret in Washington is that legislative battles are often about the politics of winning or losing, not policy or substance. Part of the reason why Democratic senators find it so hard to compromise with President Bush is that their allies believe a win for him is a loss for them.Finally, effective opposition requires party unity. And while it’s always difficult to discipline the Senate, the Democrats and their leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, have a slight advantage due to differences in party rules. Senate experts know there are some subtle idiosyncrasies distinguishing Republican and Democrat leadership structures. When LBJ ran the Senate, he was the first leader to consolidate power in terms of controlling committee assignments and budgets. Senate Republicans have a more diffuse leadership structure. Elected independently, positions such as whip, conference chair and policy chair, control their own budgetary resources and staff. Greater consolidation of leadership power in the hands of one person in the Senate makes it that much easier to unify opposition. The bevy of announced or potential Senate Democratic presidential candidates also makes compromise difficult. These candidates are competitors at one level, but they all agree on one thing — a victory for President Bush is a loss for them. They will assist Mr. Daschle if he pursues obstruction, but the cooperation ends there. As one former GOP leadership aide said, “If Daschle wanted to get something done (to help the president), they would stop him.”Peeking under the covers of Democrat strategy in the Senate, it is understandable why obstructionism is the path of least resistance and popular politically. Yet, moving beyond activists in the party base, it’s hard to see how this strategy creates a new American Democratic majority. If Democrats follow their current steps, they could well fall flat on their face — and President Bush could find himself with more Republicans on his Senate dance card in 2004.

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