Bitter clashes between President Bush and congressional Democrats foreshadow a bigger fight as the two parties start framing divergent messages on the economy and spending in time for next year's elections.
In coming weeks, the White House and its allies &
aiming to win back a reputation for fiscal probity &
plan to escalate a confrontation with Democrats over the fiscal-2008 budget, as Mr. Bush has threatened to veto nine appropriations measures.
The battle began in earnest this week, when Mr. Bush vetoed the $600 billion annual social-services appropriation. It was the third spending-related veto in recent weeks &
following those of a water bill and a children's health-care bill. It was also the first veto to nix an appropriations item.
In a speech in Indiana, the president accused congressional Democrats of "acting like a teenager with a new credit card."
The fight will reach a critical point in December when Congress tries to finalize the bulk of its annual appropriations bills. With the issues so politicized, it will be difficult for either side to back down. Democrats believe the key to next year's election is finding new ways for the government to help people cope with financial pressures including health care, college tuition, gasoline prices and even mortgage payments. For now, Republicans are putting their bets on a simpler message""holding down taxes""which they hope can be effective at a time when Democratic presidential candidates are proposing substantial new spending.
One possible outcome is a stalemate for the remainder of Mr. Bush's 14 months in office, with the government operating on autopilot under a series of continuing resolutions that keep government funding roughly at current levels. Bush budget director Jim Nussle reiterated yesterday that he doesn't anticipate a government shutdown. "I don't believe there's a serious concern" that might happen, he said.
Republicans' newfound fascination with spending stems from a simple reality: They suffered badly over the issue in 2006, some pollsters say, to a degree that many in the party haven't recognized. But selling voters on a low-tax message means Republicans will have to work hard to hold down spending, in part because voters equate higher spending with the need for higher taxes.
Republican analysts close to the White House say that among voters who supported the party in 2004 but turned against them in 2006, spending was the biggest concern after congressional corruption, bigger even than the Iraq war. Corruption and spending became linked in many voters' minds, through scandals over pork-barrel projects such as museums, parks and bridges, most notably 2005's infamous "bridge to nowhere," which earmarked $223 million for a bridge to a sparsely populated Alaskan island.
Among such voters, "their greatest anger was wasteful Washington spending," said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who has advised the White House. "And the bridge to nowhere came to symbolize everything they hated about Washington."
Mr. Luntz said many of these same voters""mostly independents""abandoned Democrats for much the same reasons in the 1994 election that gave Republicans control of the House.
Republicans won't be able to make gains in 2008, he added, unless they clearly re-establish themselves as the party that opposes excess spending. He blamed Mr. Bush for not attacking excess spending earlier, when Republicans held power.
Republican strategists close to the White House believe the spending showdown helps them with two groups that deserted them in droves in 2006: populist-leaning working-class conservatives, mainly in the Midwest; and upscale centrist suburbanites who want government to spend prudently.
Democrats say Republican losses in 2006 had less to do with spending and more to do with frustration over the war in Iraq. Jim Manley, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, says the coming fight will hurt Republicans if the public sees it as a stage-managed dispute over relatively minor spending differences. "The fact is the president is late to this debate," he said.
A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Brendan Daly, added that some Republican lawmakers already find themselves under political pressure for refusing to support more funding for services like cancer research and education.
In Congress on Wednesday, the House defied White House veto threats to give final approval to a $105.8 billion transportation and housing budget that has become a symbol of Congress's desire to invest more in the nation's infrastructure after the dramatic August collapse of an interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis. The measure, which adds $3 billion in discretionary appropriations above President Bush's budget requests, reflects a 6 percent increase in overall spending for the new fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Another test will come tomorrow when House Democrats will attempt to override Mr. Bush's veto of a popular labor, education, and medical research bill that also exceeds his budget request.
Republicans think Democrats risk promising too much, led by their presidential candidates, who are currently wooing voters with promises of more government help. Republicans have already begun charging that Sen. Hillary Clinton's promises would total $770 billion over the next decade, including $440 billion for her health-care plan.
In Congress, new Democratic deficit-fighting rules have forced the party to come up with proposals for big new tax increases to pay for new programs, which have also given Republicans fodder for attacks. Republicans can't avoid responsibility for the massive costs of the war in Iraq, but figure they can explain that as the price of national security.
Political party clash sets stage for '08