- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2005

President Bush’s re-election mandate was operating at peak power last week when the Senate voted to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In fact, Mr. Bush has been on a legislative blitzkrieg in Congress since his inauguration. First, he passed his long-stalled class-action lawsuit reforms, then came Senate action on a major bankruptcy reform bill (another priority in the president’s agenda), and now approval of drilling in ANWR over the objections of the once-powerful environmental lobby. At this rate, Mr. Bush is very likely to get the lion’s share of his remaining legislation agenda before the end of this year.

Tapping into billions of barrels of oil beneath a few thousand acres of land in the 1.5 million acre ANWR preserve has been at the heart of Mr. Bush’s energy independence plan. But it was impossible to get the 60 votes needed to end a Democratic filibuster in his first term, even with Teamsters’ support.

Several things worked together to break through the Democrats’ obstruction: Mr. Bush’s decisive re-election victory gave him a clear public mandate for his agenda, and the political capital to get it; five new Republican senators in the South (all of whom voted for drilling) replaced long-entrenched Democrats; growing national concern about the rising price of foreign oil that threatens to hamstring our economy; and the strategic decision to put the oil-drilling provision in the budget bill, which cannot be filibustered.

This set up Wednesday’s up-or-down vote Mr. Bush won by a narrow 51-49 vote. Republicans had used the budget bill maneuver before in 1995, but Bill Clinton vetoed the measure. Washington’s power structure is vastly different now. Republicans control the presidency and Congress and a lot of Republican legislation will become law over the next two years.

This is not to say the Senate’s drilling provision is close to a done deal. There are many hurdles to clear in the complex budget process that is a minefield of amendments, conference negotiations and parliamentary maneuvering.

A well-armed coalition of environmental activists, stunned by their defeat in the Senate, declared last week there will be a long, bitter fight to kill or block the ANWR amendment in Congress or in the courts.

“This battle is far from over,” said the coalition made up of a dozen groups led by the Wilderness Society. “This is just the beginning. There is a long way to go before the drill rigs roll into the Arctic Refuge.”

While the budget process is a fiendishly tricky battleground — Congress could not agree on a budget bill last year — there’s a good chance one will be approved this year with ANWR in it.

The reason: Huge deficits as far as the eye can see have increased the political pressure on congressional leaders to move a budget bill that will cut nondefense, non-homeland security spending dramatically. The president is committed to it, and so are Republican leaders.

Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist have both told their appropriations committee chairmen to get tougher on spending cuts. Both houses were working simultaneously on budget bills last week that they hoped to negotiate and pass ahead of schedule this time.

The most surprising sign of this tight-fisted mood was seen just last week when the Senate voted 52-46 to kill $1 billion in Amtrak subsidies. It was the latest manifestation of the muscular political power the GOP won at the ballot box in 2004, and Mr. Bush’s clout as well.

The White House proposed eliminating the subsidy for Amtrak’s money-losing operations in its fiscal 2006 budget, a long-time goal of conservative budget-cutters that has always been defeated. This time, though, the Senate agreed, sending a powerful new signal Congress will cut spending this year, giving Mr. Bush much, if not most, of what he wants in a nearly $2.6 trillion budget next year.

Another sign of this much more conservative Congress also came last week in the Senate when Republicans, who control the chamber by 55-44, defeated a Democratic drive to make it harder to pass future tax cuts.

The so-called “pay-go” proposal, requiring that tax cuts be paid for with equivalent spending cuts or other revenue increases, lost on a 50-50 tie. It was a sneak attack on Mr. Bush’s plans to make his tax cuts permanent. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the powerful Finance Committee chairman, called it “a stealth tax increase” and the Republican majority prevailed.

All in all, last week’s Senate votes represented the boldest display to date of the president’s and the GOP’s gushing political power in the halls of Congress. Suddenly, the prospects of Mr. Bush getting the Social Security reforms he wants passed look a little better.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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