Thus just ain’t been Dubya’s year

It must have been with great relief that President Bush left Washington to spend Christmas at Camp David and then on to his ranch in Texas.

The past week might have marked a turning point in the Bush presidency and not in a good way. The once-docile Republican-run Congress suddenly has a mind of its own, and the courts, which once gave him the benefit of the doubt on the war on terror, issued a severe rebuff to his expansive view of presidential powers.

The Senate finally passed a Bush-backed budget measure, more than three months late and then only with the aid Vice President Cheney, brought hastily back from overseas to cast a tie-breaking vote. Several small changes the Senate inserted in the bill mean the House will have to vote on it again. The bill achieves only token deficit reduction _ $40 billion a year _ largely at the expense of student loans and Medicaid. Even that modest progress will be wiped out if Congress goes through with $100 billion in tax cuts.

For the fifth year, the president failed to get Congress to open up Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, a cornerstone of administration energy policy.

The White House grudgingly agreed to a one-month renewal of the Patriot Act rather than risk having key provisions expire. This is a law that Congress basically rubber-stamped the first time around. Bush will likely get his renewal, but the price may be unwanted curbs on the sneak-and-peek and gag provisions and searches authorized only by national security letters.

When he should have been basking in good news about the economy, the president instead was defending his secret decision to allow the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without court approval. The president had earlier pledged that there would be no wiretapping without a warrant in his administration.

The revelation shocked Congress _ only a handful of members were aware of it _ and upset traditionally conservative small-government Republicans. Institutionally, it has caused Congress to begin rethinking whether it has ceded too many of its prerogatives to the White House in the name of national security.

Similarly, the usually government-friendly 4th Circuit Court of Appeals angrily refused to transfer custody of Jose Padilla so that he could stand trial on criminal charges. The administration had hoped that by trying Padilla, a Supreme Court test of whether President Bush can detain suspected terrorists indefinitely without charge or trial could be avoided. The court angrily rebuked the administration for its shifting rationale on detaining Padilla and then cleared the way for the Supreme Court challenge.

President Bush, who began the year with a triumphant second inaugural speech, finishes it with his agenda in disarray and his administration on the defensive.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)