President Bush is not on the ballot in November, but he might as well be. Republican losses could make an already difficult situation in Congress almost untenable for him.
If his party loses control of one, or both chambers of Congress, the next two years could be a political nightmare for Bush and his GOP allies on Capitol Hill.
With poll numbers at the lowest of his presidency, Bush has had trouble enough winning support for his priorities in his second term even with a Republican-led Congress. That helped lead to a recent reshuffling of the White House staff.
A Democratic House or Senate and presidential stubbornness could spell legislative gridlock.
Democratic control of either chamber could rearrange priorities. Bush’s programs and spending requests would come under increased scrutiny. Congress could even take tentative steps toward bringing troops home from Iraq or reducing funds.
Democratic control of committees in either chamber could lead to investigative hearings on Iraq, awarding of government contracts, the role of lobbyists, fraud and abuse, Pentagon divisions, any number of activities.
“You name the issue. There would be a lot of oversight hearings,” said James Thurber, director of the American University Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “He will be a true lame duck.”
History suggests the party holding the White House will loose congressional seats this year, even without Bush’s basement poll ratings. Strategists in both parties are keenly aware of this trend.
The recent surge in gasoline prices just adds to the GOP’s midterm woes.
Thus Democrats are portraying the November elections as a referendum on Bush, while Republicans are insisting it’s a series of state and local races, each with different issues.
In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, some 56 percent of voters said the issue of party control would be a factor in their vote in the midterm congressional elections. “More independents, in particular, say partisan control will be a factor,” said Carroll Doherty, Pew’s associate director.
Two recent two-term presidents _ Reagan and Clinton _ lost party control of one or both chambers.
Under Reagan, the Republican Senate went Democratic in 1986. Soon his presidency became engulfed in the Iran-Contra arms and money affair.
After two years of Democratic control, Clinton saw both chambers go Republican in 1994 and remain there for the remaining six years of his term.
Energized by their 1994 victories, Republican congressional leaders blocked an array of presidential spending proposals, leading to impasse and the actual shutdown of many government services.
Both Reagan and Clinton found ways to cope. Reagan shook up his staff, reached out to Congress and left office with his legacy mostly repaired.
Clinton successfully managed to blame the government shutdown on Republicans, survived impeachment by the House in a Senate trial, co-opted once-GOP issues like welfare overhaul and saw his approval ratings surge.
Bush starts further back in terms of popularity. And the Iraq war has become a drag on all Republican candidates. Bush seems less able to correct his listing presidency or rebound from a loss of the House or Senate as either Reagan or Clinton, analysts in both parties suggest.
Republicans hold 231 of the 435 House seats. Democrats have 201. There is one independent and two vacancies. In the Senate, Republicans have 55 seats to 44 for Democrats. There is one independent.
Ed Rogers, a GOP consultant, recognizes a GOP vulnerability this year. But he said Democrats “would have to draw an inside straight” to win back the Senate “when you look at it race by race.” House races, meanwhile, are usually settled on local issues, although sometimes a national economic downturn can have an impact, Rogers said.
“The national election could become so corrosive that it suppresses turnout. But usually what suppresses turnout is a bad economy,” Rogers said. “And the economy is the Republican safety net here.”
Still, with gasoline prices recently rising to over $3 a gallon in some areas, it may be only a matter of time before soaring energy costs drag down other well-performing parts of the economy. And the summer driving season has yet to begin.
Democrats have seized on this to mount a new attack on Republican rule.
“It’s very clear that it’s America’s number one issue today,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Bush on Tuesday tackled rising gasoline prices himself, suspending environmental rules for gas additives, ordering an investigation into whether price gouging is taking place and temporarily stopping government purchases of crude for the nation’s emergency reserve.
His political reserve, meanwhile, is almost empty, even for many Republicans unhappy about his strained dealings with Congress, suggested Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.
Baker said that, while a divided Congress may not be good for Bush, “there is some research that indicates that a divided government works. And oddly enough, sometimes it can work even better than a unified government.”
Just don’t expect Bush or his GOP allies to agree.
Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.
© 2006 The Associated Press