Will Republicans be Bush's worst enemies?

From John McCain to Tom DeLay, members of his own party could make the most trouble for the president-elect.

Published December 17, 2000 1:01AM (EST)

President-elect George W. Bush got through the campaign by placating his right-wing base while vying for the middle with his self-proclaimed "compassionate conservatism." Now, as Bush is forced to govern without a mandate after losing the popular vote, there are signs that his most dangerous foes may emerge not from the ranks of bitter Democrats, but from his own party.

On top of that list of potential GOP troublemakers is Bush's primary-season rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who plans to quickly reintroduce his signature campaign finance reform bill. Meanwhile, on Bush's right, conservatives are pushing him to kick off his legislative agenda with a ban on partial-birth abortion, while centrist Republicans are balking at the president-elect's ambitious tax cut.

At the same time, congressional GOP leaders are hinting at an emerging strategy, in which they play the far-right bad cop to Bush's mainstream conservative, allow him to wage fake battles with them and settle for the agenda both sides were comfortable with all along.

More than any Democrat, McCain is vowing to challenge the new president quickly. And more than any other Republican, he appears to mean it. Asked when he planned on reintroducing his campaign finance measure, McCain told Salon, "Right away" -- even before the Bush legislative package hits the Hill. "We can get it out of the way so as not to interfere with the rest of his agenda."

McCain's crusade was emboldened by Democratic gains in the Senate, which is now split 50-50. The new Democrats have vowed to support the McCain-Feingold bill that Republican senators like Slade Gorton and John Ashcroft, both of whom lost their reelection bids, opposed.

But McCain insists he is not trying to sandbag the new administration. "That's not my intention," he said. "My intention is to work together with others and show that we can work in a bipartisan fashion and make this the priority."

Still, many Republicans on the Hill now fear that McCain, who was never the favorite of his own party's political leadership, could become Bush's Sam Nunn. During President Clinton's first days in office, when he enjoyed comfortable congressional majorities, the White House was derailed by a fight over gays in the military -- led by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, and Nunn, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The intraparty squabble between the administration and Nunn set the tone for media coverage of the Clinton White House as one that had early problems finding its footing and dealing with a Congress controlled by members of the new president's own party.

Could McCain similarly derail the first 100 days of the Bush presidency? "Of course he could," said Jonathan Barron, a spokesman for House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. "The question is will he -- and that's a question that only Sen. McCain can answer. He is not representative of the Republican Party on the issue of campaign finance reform. But there's no question that campaign finance reform is something that will have to be dealt with by the Bush team."

"This McCain thing will be fun and interesting, but what we're interested in seeing is if he disassociates himself with Tom DeLay," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "That's the game to watch. That's where the real extremism is within the party. The question is, Does he keep his promises to the far right in exchange for their silence during the campaign?"

But McCain is not Bush's only problem in his party. Republican conservatives are also beginning to make waves on Bush's right.

The new president's first days in office will serve as a good indicator of how far he will go to placate those conservatives. Many Republicans and centrist Democrats agree that bills repealing the marriage tax penalty and the death tax could potentially pass Congress, and be signed into law by Bush, to gain some bipartisan momentum. Both measures were passed by the last Congress but vetoed by President Clinton.

But one other measure, a ban on partial-birth abortion, also received OKs from both houses, only to be rejected by Clinton. Now, House leaders like DeLay and religious conservatives like Gary Bauer are urging the new president to make the bill among the first that he pushes through Congress, and signs into law.

In a New York Times editorial Friday, Bauer, who also ran against Bush for the Republican presidential nomination and later endorsed McCain, warned Bush against ignoring religious conservatives.

"It is always political suicide to forsake your base and crush its hopes and dreams. Mr. Bush will need the continued loyalty and passionate support of millions of traditional conservative voters to weather the inevitable political firestorms of the next four years," Bauer wrote.

In many respects, abortion was the great non-issue of the 2000 campaign. Bush religiously answered the question with the same mantra -- "good people can disagree on that issue" -- in a concerted effort to temper the social conservatism that had defined the Republican Party in the last three election cycles.

But Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt said taking up the partial-birth abortion issue would be a mistake for the new president. "When George Bush sets foot in the Oval Office in January, he must understand that he has no mandate to interfere with any aspect of a woman's right to choose, or with access to reproductive healthcare," she said. "Pro-choice Al Gore got the popular vote nationally, and when you add votes cast for pro-choice Ralph Nader, you have a clear voter preference for a pro-choice president."

But Pelosi is convinced the new president will move quickly to sign a partial-birth abortion ban into law. "That will be one of the first gifts he gives to the far right," she said.

Bush appeared to send a small signal to anti-abortion advocates Friday in a statement released about the death of suburban New York Bishop and abortion foe James McHugh, which was filled with coded language about abortion. "Laura and I are saddened to learn of the untimely death of one of America's great defenders of life." The statement went on to herald McHugh as "a steadfast voice for human life."

For now, Democrats seem inclined to let some of the internal battles play out within the Republican Party, as the GOP travels the always-bumpy road between campaigning and governing. "George Bush has this problem with keeping his right wing happy and appealing to the center," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "The right wing did him an enormous favor during the campaign. They gave Bush a pass. Now the question is: Does the right wing stay quiet?"

And just as Republicans cried foul when Clinton appropriated their issues, Democrats now are beginning to charge that Bush was elected essentially on a Democratic agenda. "Except for the tax cut, they're all Democratic issues," Frank said. "A greater federal role in education, some protection for patients. The frustrating thing for Democrats is that they faked people out."

Frank said he suspects Bush will "make a run on RU-486," the so-called abortion pill that was approved by the FDA earlier this year, and could move on his desire to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve.

But conservatives are prepared for Bush to continue as he did during the campaign, trying to be all things to all Republicans and occasionally playing off the right as a way to place himself in the political center. Already the new administration is coordinating with members of the congressional leadership to secure both Bush policy victories, and perhaps more importantly, early political victories for the incoming president. "We've been the foil for quite a while, and proudly so," DeLay spokesman Baron said. "I imagine we will continue to do so."

But it's not just his party's right wing that Bush occasionally zinged. Bush ran as a Washington outsider, as a governor -- someone removed from the partisan rancor in Washington and used to forging coalitions across party lines. He often showed a willingness to scold the GOP-run Congress in the process. Members of the House leadership team fully expect Bush to continue to play off Congress to forge his own policy objectives, with House leaders willing to play the role of villain.

"The reason you see stylistic differences is because they have different constituencies and objectives," one House leadership aide said. "George W. Bush had to build a broad, national general election coalition. That requires a different strategy than the task of grinding out day-by-day legislation in the House or the Senate. Bush ran the campaign he needed to run without complaint because everyone understood what he was doing."

There are already signs that the wink-and-nudge relationship would continue between President Bush and the new Congress. Already, congressional Republican leaders are voicing opposition to Bush's campaign centerpiece -- a $1.3 trillion across-the-board tax cut. But members say this staking out of political turf is part of a political strategy aimed at raking up early victories for President Bush.

"Have it be the Bush proposal and let it be picked apart and massaged through the legislative process," one House Republican told the New York Times. In other words, introduce the tax plan as an unachievable goal so when the two sides agree on cutting "only" the marriage penalty and the death tax, both can claim victory. And more importantly, Bush can claim he worked in a bipartisan way to fashion a compromise.

Certainly centrist Democrats, who figure to play an increased role with the Republicans' diminished House majority, are trumpeting bipartisan cooperation.

On Friday, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., made his pilgrimage to Austin as the de facto ambassador of bipartisanship. "I think we certainly share the concept that we have to build coalitions in order to get anything done," Breaux told Bush in a photo op after their lunch together. "And we look forward to you coming to Washington and meeting with our leadership and trying to find some ways we can make government work for everybody."

Breaux reportedly told Bush that he wanted to remain in the Senate rather than be a part of a Bush cabinet. But Bush was effusive in his praise of the centrist Democrat. "Well, we had a private conversation, but he made it clear to me that he is looking forward to being one of the leaders in the United States Senate, which is really good news for America," Bush said.

"And the reason it's good news for America is because John Breaux has got the attitude that I have -- that when you put your country ahead of partisanship, when you put your country ahead of party politics, it's amazing what can get done. And the American people, after this election, I am confident, are going to say to both Republicans and Democrats, 'Let's come together and get something done on healthcare and education, on the military.'"

Other centrist Democrats echo Bush. "I have a long history of working with Republicans on centrist policy initiatives, and I hope to work with President-elect Bush in advancing those initiatives," said Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Calif. "From reforming federal education funding, to increasing Medicare reimbursement rates and adding prescription drug coverage, to providing targeted tax relief, this nation faces a host of challenges and I hope to work with Republicans and Democrats in advancing these centrist initiatives."

But some Republicans weren't biting. "The Democrats are very cleverly trying to define bipartisanship and make that the standard by which things should be judged, so several months hence they can proclaim George W. Bush has failed to live up to that standard," said one senior aide to the House leadership. "It's nothing more than a political strategy."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert's spokesman John Feehery said the political thermostat in Congress would be set largely by the Democrats in both houses. "The speaker tried to work in a bipartisan way and had some success, but [House Minority Leader] Dick Gephardt didn't want to get anything done," Feehery said. "If the minority leader is willing to put a lot of politics aside, I think the president-elect is going to have some success. But you can't work in a bipartisan way if the people you want to work with don't want to work with you."

There is bipartisan consensus on one issue: Comity in Congress won't last forever. Frank, for one, didn't seem to be tripping over himself to say something nice about the new president-elect. "Bush is lucky," Frank said. "He's lucky that this brouhaha down in Florida happened, otherwise the press would be focusing on how few votes he got," a reference to the fact that Bush lost the popular vote to Gore. "The very divisiveness is playing in his favor. Now, there's a passion for unity that people didn't have. In a normal election, people feel free to beat the crap out of you, but when they have to carry you over the finish line, there's a tendency to back off."

Frank suspects the rhetorical bipartisan love affair will be short. "This will last until February or March when we get into substance," he said. "The press overwrote the crisis story and now they're going to overwrite the love affair story."

On the other side of the aisle, a conservative House aide mostly agrees. The House leadership expects Bush to follow through on a conservative agenda, he said, regardless of the split in Congress and in the presidential election.

"It doesn't make sense to suggest that if half the country wants vanilla ice cream and half wants chocolate, that we just throw both in the mixer and get a flavorless bland gruel. It was a close election, and one that will require bipartisan support in the governing phase, but George W. Bush has a compassionate conservative agenda, and that agenda is supported by a large part of the leadership in the House and Senate."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barney Frank D-mass. George W. Bush John Mccain