When in doubt, Bash Congress

President Bush’s agenda these days is not subtle: Blast Democratic lawmakers for ineptitude. Then find a way to do it again.

Even with the factors working against him — record-low approval ratings, fading public attention and dwindling time in office — Bush still talks like a leader whose hand has never been stronger. Backed by a veto power that’s hard to override, Bush has taken to blistering Congress in a remarkably relentless fashion.

The latest scolding came Thursday. Bush accused Democrats of forgetting the lingering terrorist threat and putting the nation at risk. Then he prodded Congress to give him what he wants — confirmation of his attorney general, a revamped government surveillance law and defense spending bills he can support.

This was a year that began with Bush talking of getting a targeted agenda through Congress; now, Congress is the target. It started when Bush challenged lawmakers to get him major spending bills by the Oct. 1 start of the 2008 budget year. When that didn’t happen, he went on the offensive and has not stopped.

On Oct. 15, the president almost gleefully told an Arkansas audience, “You’re fixing to see what they call a fiscal showdown in Washington.” Two days later, he called a news conference to point out — eight straight times — that “Congress has work to do.”

After dashing to California to comfort victims of wildfires, Bush went before the media to admonish Congress for wasting time while he was gone. And a few days later, with House Republican leaders by his side, Bush denounced Congress as do-nothing once more.

“Congress is not getting its work done,” he said. “We’re near the end of the year, and there really isn’t much to show for it.”

Bush’s approach is seemingly a world away from the conciliatory tone of a year ago, when Democrats won Congress. Several reasons explain why.

For starters, as Bush said himself, the bully pulpit and the veto are the best tools he’s got.

He never vetoed a spending bill when Republicans ran Congress and the budget grew, although aides say he affected the bottom line with veto threats.

Now he seems eager to veto one.

“I don’t think this is a bad strategy for the president,” said John Fortier, a research fellow who studies politics and elections at the American Enterprise Institute. “Republican unity has suffered some in recent years, and for Bush to return to a theme of fiscal restraint, I think it’s a natural for him.”

The White House says Bush has every right to call out Congress, since lawmakers control what laws are approved and when.

Bush is genuinely frustrated, aides said, that Congress is behind on all the major spending bills and poised again to send him a children’s health insurance bill even knowing he will veto it.

“Shining a spotlight on what they have not done — either because they’re unwilling to or unable to — is important for people to know and understand,” said the president’s counselor, Ed Gillespie. “I just think it’s helpful for the voters to understand that this is something we have no control over here.”

Clearly, making Democrats look bad also has implications for 2008. Bush can’t run again, but he can try to influence who controls Congress.

Democrats say Bush is isolated, dismissive of true cooperation, and overlooking their work on college aid, national security and the minimum wage.

“History shows Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both improved their standing in the back end of their terms by doing things,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the Democratic caucus chairman. “He’s chosen the opposite strategy. He’s trying to figure out someone left to blame.”

In challenging Congress, Bush is taking on an institution with even lower public approval ratings than his own.

And even unpopular presidents have an enormous edge with the power of veto. Veto overrides require a two-thirds majority votes in both the House and Senate. In the nation’s history, there have been more than 2,500 vetoes. Less than 5 percent have been overridden.

Of course, if the veto is Bush’s friend, it is a fairly new one. He was the first president to go an entire full first term without vetoing a bill since John Quincy Adams, whose presidency ended in 1829. In total, Bush has vetoed only four bills.

He is expected to veto a fifth bill on Friday — a $23 billion water projects measure. For the first time, there are enough votes to override his veto.

There are downsides for Bush’s veto strategy.

“You have to view a veto as essentially a negative act, not a positive act,” said Ken Duberstein, who was Ronald Reagan’s last chief of staff. “I would suggest to you right now that the American people are looking for a way for the administration and the Congress to work things out together. Vetoes are not working things out. There is a danger that if you use it not surgically, but as a blanket, you become a negative influence.”

Bush’s blame-Congress strategy also holds some peril for Republican lawmakers.

Every time they vote to uphold his veto, as they did on the children’s health insurance bill, they risk alienating potential voters.

“If the Republicans in Congress want to go to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and stand with the president again, I’ll pay their cab fare,” Emanuel said. “I’ll drive the bus over. Let’s make it a daily event. Stay as close as you can to the president’s policies. I’d pay for that.”

Republicans in the Senate must defend nearly twice as many seats in next year’s elections as Democrats. And the challenge is only growing steeper for Republicans, as an increasing number of GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate plan to retire rather than run again — putting even more GOP seats in play.

Each day that the next election gets closer, Republicans are less likely to stand by their president.

“Rule number one is get elected. Rule number two is get re-elected,” said Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College in New York. “They aren’t going to go down out of loyalty to somebody who’s not running for re-election.”


Ben Feller covers the White House for The Associated Press