Hard-fought victories on trade, energy and highway spending — plus good economic news — lifted the spirits of President Bush and his Republican allies as the U.S. Congress set off for a monthlong break.
While those successes could temper further talk of Bush becoming a lame duck, he faces much tougher political battles over revamping Social Security — his top domestic priority — and immigration policies when lawmakers return in September.
Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, John Roberts, faces Senate confirmation hearings in the fall with less opposition than anticipated and the president appeared likely to avoid a Capitol Hill showdown over John Bolton by appointing him U.N. ambassador during the summer recess.
House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert welcomed the news on Friday the economy grew by a solid 3.4 percent in the second quarter after a more robust 3.8 percent growth rate in the first three months of the year as a sign Republican policies were working.
“I think we probably had a pretty incredible first seven months of this first session of Congress,” Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said before lawmakers left for their August break. “Have we done everything we have ever wanted to do? Not exactly. But we have done an awful lot.”
Bush, who heads off next week to his Crawford, Texas, ranch, devoted his radio address to touting legislative successes, saying the past week had brought major achievements. He vowed to keep up the pressure for priorities such as renewal of the USA Patriot Act.
Victories on trade, energy and highways show Bush is not just a lame duck in his last term, said Ethan Siegal, head of The Washington Exchange, which tracks policy for investors.
TOUGH FIGHTS AHEAD
But what remains is Bush’s top domestic priority — revamping Social Security. Siegal said he did not believe Bush would succeed against solid Democratic opposition and public wariness. Congressional Republican leaders have said they will push for legislation later this year that would set up individual Social Security investment accounts.
The war in Iraq is also becoming a negative for Bush and is playing into growing public doubts about him, Siegal said.
“A credibility problem is cropping up and I think that is a negative for him going forward,” he said.
Bush also faces a divisive battle over immigration reform and his call for a temporary worker program. Some Republicans want to provide a path to legal status for those who have been living and working in the United States for years, while others reject any amnesty and want to tougher border controls.
But for now, Republicans, who hope to strengthen their control of Congress in next year’s congressional elections, will point to their successes.
Before departing, Congress passed a $286.5 billion highway and transit construction bill. Passage of the bill ended a two-year impasse with the White House over its cost.
Early in the year, Congress passed legislation limiting class-action lawsuits, forcing plaintiffs to take their cases to the federal courts instead of state courts where they could shop for a sympathetic jurisdiction.
Other parts of Bush’s agenda to reshape the legal system have stalled. Legislation capping medical malpractice lawsuits passed the House, but has an uncertain fate in the Senate. A bipartisan asbestos bill has bogged down in the Senate as critics in both parties push for changes.
Bush enjoyed a victory this year on overhauling federal bankruptcy law. Passed in April, the new law makes it harder for Americans to wipe out their debts and start over.
That business-friendly agenda was capped this week by passage of a free-trade agreement with Central America and a broad energy bill that Bush has long sought.
The energy bill ended a four-year fight, although Bush and his Republican allies had to give up a provision allowing oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Congress will take that up in separate legislation this fall.