Congress unmoved by Bush's call for swift action on domestic bills


WASHINGTON -- It was conceived as a challenge, a clarion call to Congress that would cause lawmakers to charge out of the bunkers.

But President Bush's Wednesday night exhortation to "move forward aggressively on the domestic front" has triggered mostly yawns and snickers on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress -- particularly majority Democrats -- doubt that Mr. Bush will be able to translate accolades for his Persian Gulf choreography into enhanced political muscle for the congressional battles to come.

To demonstrate his new determination to shape an agenda at home, the president called on Congress to pass a crime bill and a transportation bill. "If our forces could win the ground war in 100 hours," he said, "then surely the Congress can pass this legislation in 100 days."

Yet Mr. Bush's critics argue that his address before the joint session of Congress underscored the poverty of his domestic agenda, especially compared with his efforts to forge a new political order in the Middle East. The crime and transportation bills, they say, include vital and nettlesome issues, but issues that pall next to other matters over which the most intense political debate has been joined.

"We feel very, very strongly that the president's attention to the domestic agenda . . . is very welcome indeed, and we are most anxious to cooperate with him," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash. Or, to put it in the tart words of one leadership staff aide: "Welcome back to our turf, Mr. President."

It is hardly surprising that Democrats relish the prospect of engaging Mr. Bush in the tug and pull of legislative debate. A veritable stack of bills -- most with campaign implications -- await attention.

There is, for example, a pending civil rights bill that would make it easier for women and minorities to sue over job discrimination. Also at the top of the Democrats' list is a campaign finance reform bill aimed at overhauling the way lawmakers raise and spend special-interest money for political races.

Democrats also plan another attempt to pass family-leave legislation, which, like the civil rights bill, died last year under the president's veto.

"I don't see any spillover effect from the Persian Gulf war, except maybe on some matters of defense spending," said Sen. Terry Sanford, D-N.C. "Tomorrow's a whole new day."

Democrats have been awaiting that day since the 102nd Congress buckled down to legislative business at the end of January.

For the past six weeks, opposition lawmakers have labored under a kind of political cloud. Many had been unable and unwilling to challenge Mr. Bush over a war they opposed -- partly because they did not want to project an image of irresolution to Saddam Hussein, partly because they did not want to be seen undercutting U.S. troops deployed in the war zone, partly because they feared a public backlash against their criticisms if the war ended quickly with few U.S. casualties.

That reluctance to take on the president spilled over into a number of areas unrelated to the war. "He's the commander in chief. No one wants to be seen attacking him," said House Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta, D-Calif. "It's had a spillover effect across the board."

White House strategists have been asking whether the president's stratospheric popularity ratings will have a similar impact, even as the war recedes in memory. But Democrats have given no sign of being so cowed, gearing up for the kind of classic struggles on the crime and transportation bills that have been repeated in years past.

For example, the crime bill to be submitted this week by the administration includes many of the same proposals rejected by the last Congress, including the death penalty for several drug-related crimes, loosened limitations on police search-and-seizure practices and a truncated death penalty appeals process.

In the meantime, Representative Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on criminal justice, said he would press anew for a seven-day waiting period on handgun registration. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., plans to call for a ban on assault weapons and an increase in funds with which to pay local police officers.

Several Republicans are said to be sending signals to the White House that they would like to delay passage of the crime bill until next year, when, they hope, a get-tough election-season crime package will cause voters to look fondly on Republican candidates.

The administration's contemplated five-year, $105 billion highway construction and mass transportation package offers similar opportunity for debate and delay far beyond the president's proclaimed timetable. The fight over that bill is likely to cleave state and regional, as well as party, lines as lawmakers and White House officials duke it out over highway reconstruction funding levels and formulas that divide the funds up among the states.

"It's going to take more than 100 days, you can be sure of that," said Representative Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania, the top-ranking Republican on the Public Works and Transportation subcommittee that deals with the highway issue.

It's not clear, for that matter, whether the president is going to get much more cooperation from his party's rank-and-file on other administration initiatives -- for example, an energy policy under fire from Republicans as well as Democrats for not sufficiently emphasizing conservation.

Lawmakers agree that the president is likely to reap the benefits of his enhanced stature on at least one issue, however. Soon, lawmakers are expected to vote whether to grant the administration so-called fast-track negotiating authority for the next round of GATT free-trade negotiations.

"It comes down to the question of how we view ourselves and our role in the rest of the world," said Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo. "I think a lot of people around here are ready to defer to the president on that one."

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