A Stalled Agenda

President Bush and the Republicans who control Congress were counting on their partisan strength this year to overhaul Social Security, reshape immigration policy, bring spending under control, make permanent various tax cuts, drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and push a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Some also were pushing for more or less embryonic stem-cell research, a fund for people with asbestos-related illnesses, private pension fund protections and anti-abortion bills including one telling women that fetuses can feel pain.

But the GOP didn’t count on a string of events that would set its ambitious plans on end. Costs ballooned in Iraq, and many Americans turned against the war. Hurricanes devastated the Gulf Coast. Two vacancies sprang up on the Supreme Court, and the president’s second nominee has landed with a thud. A probe into a CIA leak is shaking the White House’s top political adviser, Karl Rove. A probe into a stock sale is shaking Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. And criminal indictments in a campaign finance case forced Tom DeLay of Texas, the House GOP leader, to step aside from his leadership post.

With so many pressing obstacles and intra-party fractures, it’s clear to the players, including the president, that much of the Republican agenda simply may not get done. Not this year, with Thanksgiving the target time for wrapping up business on Capitol Hill _ and not next year, either, in cases in which votes are too volatile for the one-third of the Senate, and all of the House members, facing elections.

Some Republicans now say they will consider the year a success if the Senate can confirm Harriet Miers, the president’s second high-court nominee, and if the House and Senate can agree on the basics: hurricane-related legislation, appropriations bills and a budget reconciliation that includes billions of dollars in spending and tax cuts.

“I think if we just do those things it’s going to be a huge undertaking _ and accomplishment,” said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who had a home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. “I don’t think it’s fair to criticize the leadership for not being able to do all these other things. You’ve got to deal with the realities of life in your schedule. Everything is gone until we resurrect it.”

Democrats see Republicans’ predicament differently, said Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden: “Ideology has run into reality, and they don’t have a Plan B.”

In a news conference last week, the president didn’t even mention Social Security in a list of items he wants to get to before next year’s State of the Union speech. Called on the omission, he told reporters, “It’s a long-term problem that’s going to need to be addressed. When the appetite to address it is, that’s going to be up to the members of Congress.”

Later in the week, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, one of several senators with competing ideas about how to tighten or loosen immigration policy to balance business interests, national security and other concerns, said of a debate on immigration reform, “Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to get pushed back to the first part of next year.”

Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist said he doesn’t expect a final vote permanently repealing the estate tax until 2007. But he expects conservatives to campaign on the issue in 2006, anyhow.

“It’s either, ‘Look what we did for you, vote for us,’ or ‘This is what we tried to do for you. Vote for us and help us beat the guy who’s against it.’ ”

Norquist does predict passage of a budget reconciliation bill by year’s end, and, with it, Arctic oil drilling and billions in tax cuts.

“It’s too important to the leadership to get this stuff done, to show they’re in charge of things, to show they’re making stuff happen _ and because it’s good policy,” Norquist said.

But many Republicans in Congress aren’t so confident. Several Republican aides said they expect leaders will push for votes on a reconciliation bill, but that at this point it isn’t at all clear they’ll have enough support.

Republicans are divided over what cuts are appropriate _ whether tax cuts are luxuries that must be suspended, or incentives keeping the economy going _ and whether there shouldn’t be more spending, not less, because of the hurricanes, such as temporarily extending Medicaid benefits to the displaced.

Democrats see the hurricane as leverage to pressure Republicans to scale back tax cuts. They argue that budget-reconciliation plans would hurt thousands of poor Southerners who lost their homes, jobs and health benefits.

“They’re seeking to cut $35 billion from programs the American people not only want but deserve, and in addition to that their budget resolution calls for $70 billion in tax cuts,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “With Katrina, with this war out of control, with the economy the way it is, I can’t imagine how they would have the moral low ground to bring up reconciliation.”