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GOP preps stage for Bush agenda

WASHINGTON -- With expanded majorities in both houses of Congress, Republican leaders are tightening the circle of power and sending warning signals to moderates and Democrats who might threaten the ambitious legislative agenda of the White House.

Combined with President Bush's recent efforts to consolidate more executive-branch power in the hands of key loyalists, the GOP actions set the stage for an efficient legislative operation to process Bush administration objectives through Congress and then on to the White House for Bush's signature, analysts say.

''There is this kind of effort to convert the key policy-making institutions of government into one assembly line for the president's agenda," said Paul Light, a professor at New York University who specializes in government transitions. ''That's very unusual -- it's almost like running a large conglomerate when you have the [president as] CEO and the House and Senate as almost the manufacturing division."

Senate Republicans voted this week to give their majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, more authority in naming members of legislative committees, a power that helps Frist impose party discipline by allowing him to pass over veteran senators for some posts.

GOP colleagues also forced Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a moderate, to fight for the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, a post he is entitled to under Senate traditions rewarding seniority. Specter, who supports abortion rights, effectively sewed up his bid for the job Thursday despite opposition from conservative groups, but only after pledging to his colleagues that he would give all of Bush's nominees ''quick committee hearings and committee votes."

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are considering an official challenge to the rules that allow 41 senators to stop a judicial nominee through a filibuster, the tool used by Democrats to block some of the administration's judicial nominees. The proposed challenge would not affect other filibusters.

On the House side, Republicans on Wednesday protected their leader, Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, by voting in secret to throw out the rule requiring legislators to step down from their leadership positions if they are indicted. DeLay has not been charged with a crime, but several of his associates have been indicted in an ongoing Texas investigation into corporate donations to Republican state legislative candidates.

Michael Franc, a congressional analyst with the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, said Congress is giving its leaders ''more tools in the toolbox" to approve the agenda of the Republican majority.

But giving GOP leaders more tools does not sit well with Democrats, some moderate Republicans, and some nonpartisan government watchdog groups. They say the moves are part of a pattern of rule changes that stifle dissent and threaten some of the checks and balances on government.

Some cited recent votes in the House to limit the kinds of cases federal courts can hear -- for example, blocking consideration of marriage legislation and laws defending the Pledge of Allegiance -- as a different type of assault on the balance of power, weakening the federal judiciary's ability to override the decisions of the president and Congress.

''I think the kind of breakdown of oversight and checks and balances is a huge issue in the coming year," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which tracks campaign financing and the use of government power. ''It certainly does appear that there is both a consolidation of power going on and, in the case of recent actions by House Republicans, a demonstration of hypocrisy and hubris that reflects a circling of the wagons."

The minority party over the years typically has protested about abuse by the majority, which sets the schedule for hearings and floor votes on legislation. But the current GOP-dominated government has been effective at coordinating activity among the White House, the House, and the Senate into a ''seamless" effort to pass Bush's priorities, said Light, the professor at New York University.

Republicans defended their rules changes, saying that the election this month validated their agenda and that Democrats need to be less obstructionist.

''They ought to try to put good government" first, said Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. Brushing aside Democrats' complaints about poor treatment, Lott recalled his days as a member of the House minority: ''They treated us like the worst beaten dogs you ever saw. They wouldn't even throw us a bone."

Representative Henry Bonilla, a Republican of Texas who initiated the House rules change that could help DeLay maintain power, said the old rule rewarded ''partisan" prosecutions and violated the tenet of presumed innocence. Asked what voice Democrats could have in a House tightly controlled by GOP leaders, he said, ''We weren't elected by the people in our districts to serve the minority."

Dissenting voices in the administration, meanwhile, have been muted, with the scheduled departure of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the personnel housecleaning at the CIA by the agency's new director, former Republican congressman Porter Goss. Bush has appointed to his new Cabinet a series of officials with close personal ties and demonstrated loyalty to the president.

But Bush also benefits from an unusually friendly Congress, where Republicans will have expanded, comfortable majorities next year. While previous Congresses have served as political counterweights to the White House, the current Congress rarely challenges the administration, Democratic legislators say.

With the exception of the independent commission investigating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a panel that the White House initially opposed, Congress has launched no significant probes into the executive branch, said Representative Martin Meehan, Democrat of Lowell.

Meehan is pushing legislation that would put the House Governmental Affairs Committee, which is in charge of government oversight, in the control of whichever political party is not in the White House.

''Given the arrogance and the one-party rule in Washington, I think this is a recipe for Republicans overreaching," Meehan said. ''They will pay a price for it in the midterm elections."

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