For Bush, no cakewalk in Congress
Page 3 of 3 -- Many Bush allies want to move quickly on Social Security, by proposing a straightforward and stripped-down bill that simply diverts payroll taxes into private accounts, with no changes on benefit formulas, age limits, or other components, and with no specific plan to pay for the transition costs. That approach would guarantee stiff Democratic opposition and some resistance from anti-deficit Republicans.
Alternatively, the president could go the bipartisan commission route. But that is a path he tried on this issue early in his first term, without success. All the members he appointed to the commission, including the Democrats, favored private accounts from the beginning, thus leaving it without broad credibility and no opportunity to build support.
There are other ways the president could begin his second term. Perhaps he'll be able to start with some issues that are left over from his first term, such as medical malpractice reform and his comprehensive energy bill, using his political capital to ram them through, and then using the capital replenished by those victories to build momentum until he's ready to fight the larger battles on Social Security and taxes.Perhaps he can avoid -- or will choose to avoid -- a bitter partisan battle in the Senate over a divisive and ideologically aggressive Supreme Court nominee. (He could do so easily by filling a Rehnquist vacancy with Miguel Estrada -- while nominating Stephen Breyer to be Chief Justice.)
Perhaps Iraq, following elections there, will recede as an issue and the president will be able to use his bully pulpit and other resources to put pressure on recalcitrant members of Congress to pass his ambitious domestic reforms.
But a more likely outcome is that both houses will continue to have deep partisan divisions; that the president's definition of bipartisanship will continue to be "I'll put out my policy plans, and if you are bipartisan you'll vote for them"; that Republicans will start to lose some of their impressive unity as 2006 approaches; that the president's core ideological base will grow increasingly restive; that bitter partisan clashes on judicial nominations will be the norm, with the fallout spilling over into other policy areas; and that Iraq and troubles in foreign policy will provide a continuing distraction from the domestic agenda.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is coauthor of "The Permanent Campaign and Its Future."