On January 29 George W. Bush will deliver a rare wartime State of the Union address. But the most critical words from the President–in his prime-time speech and related high-profile statements leading up to the February 4 unveiling of his budget plan–will not be the latest repetition of his now-familiar call for patriots to storm the ramparts of Afghanistan and defend the home front. Rather, the meaningful sections of the various Bush speeches will be those that identify how and where he will choose to engage with an all-but-forgotten Congress in the coming months. As he began preparing to shape the domestic debate, Bush telegraphed his determination to renew the push for an economic stimulus plan that is big on corporate tax breaks and weak on aid for displaced workers. As such, he drew the battle lines for a political face-off that has the potential to be significantly more dramatic than the lackluster squabbling that characterized the Congressional session that closed on December 20. The key word is “potential,” however, as Congressional Democrats remain disturbingly uncertain about the extent to which they will challenge a still popular President in a critical election year.
“The question that the Democrats in the House and the Senate have to face down is this: Can you be against terrorism, defend the interests of working families and chew gum at the same time?” says Representative Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who caucuses with the Democrats but bristles at their caution. Noting that Bush took advantage last fall of the Democrats’ uncertainty as to how and where to take the Administration on, Sanders adds, “The question now is whether we are going to make the case against Bush’s economic policies. And the fight, initially at least, is within the Democratic caucus.”
On most issues, Congress went AWOL after September 11. Aside from votes au-thorizing the use of force in response to the terrorist attacks, federalizing airport security and granting the Attorney General constitutionally dubious investigatory and enforcement powers, Congress did little in the way of legislating. When members finally straggled out of Washington just before Christmas, they left unresolved debates over a plan to stimulate the sagging economy, a rewrite of federal farm policy, campaign finance reform, election law reform, a minimum-wage increase, renewal of presidential fast-track authority for trade negotiations, an overhaul of bankruptcy rules, patients’-bill-of-rights legislation, prescription drug reform, deregulation of Internet broadband services, authorization of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and establishment of standards for the distribution of federal funds to faith-based groups. Add to that list the duty to review executive and judicial appointments, as well as oversight of an expanding war and antiterrorism initiatives that pose dramatic new threats to civil liberties, and you’re looking at a big agenda for an anthrax-addled Congress that only in late January returned to its regular offices from temporary quarters.
But the greatest challenge as Congress returns boils down to the issue of Democratic direction: Will Democrats, who backed Bush on international and domestic issues in the immediate aftermath of September 11 and took him on only cautiously in the months that followed, make a clear break with the President in the new year? Or will they gamble that running parallel to Bush on most issues is the safer route–counting on a weak economy and the burgeoning Enron scandal to provide a narrow advantage in the November 5 elections, which will decide the partisan balance in the House and Senate?