Bush's agenda faces opposition from election-wary Republicans

April 4th 2005 - The tightly disciplined, Republican-controlled Congress that gave President George W. Bush key pro- business victories in the first few months of his second term may now put political survival ahead of party unity.

Bush has outlined an aggressive agenda -- including restructuring Social Security, cutting a record budget deficit and easing immigration policies -- that he hopes will secure his legacy for posterity. His party's lawmakers have a simpler goal: winning re-election and maintaining or enlarging their House and Senate majorities in 2006.

``Bush sees himself as a consequential president in history who accomplished big things,'' says Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. ``Most members of Congress can be very happy just strolling along saying, 'Here is all the money I delivered to my district.'''

Congressional Republicans are pushing for legislation to allow drug imports from Canada, a measure opposed by Bush and drug makers such as Pfizer Inc. and Merck & Co. Bush also faces resistance on his plan to ease immigration laws, which food- service companies such as Outback Steakhouse Inc. and Wendy's International Inc. support. And Wall Street analysts and economists hoping for measures to restrain the budget deficit are concerned that lawmakers facing re-election won't be inclined to cut spending.

``There are some great challenges,'' White House spokesman Trent Duffy says. ``This president is a big-game hunter. The process is just beginning.''

The Republicans, who gained expanded majorities in both chambers of Congress in the November elections, gave Bush some early successes this year with measures that curbed class-action lawsuits, rewrote bankruptcy laws and paved the way for oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Easy Wins

These ``were easy wins that were left over from the last Congress,'' says Ethan Siegal, president of the Washington Exchange, which tracks policy for institutional investors. ``Everything else Bush has on the table is very difficult, and the discipline in his party is breaking apart.''

The first stirrings of dissent were heard when lawmakers took up Bush's 2006 budget, which calls for trimming federal benefits and other domestic programs while extending portions of his first-term tax cuts.

Last month, Senator Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican, led six other Republicans in blocking Bush's plan to cut $14 billion from the Medicaid health program over five years. And when a Senate committee approved Bush's $284 billion highway bill, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma assured his fellow Republicans that the funding may be increased later.

Drug Imports

Republicans are also at odds with Bush's position on allowing Americans to import cheaper drugs from Canada. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the powerful chairman of the Finance Committee, is pushing for legislation that would allow the imports, which Bush and drug makers oppose.

Representative Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican, says she is confident the bill allowing imports can clear the House. Lawmakers' ``constituents are saying, find any means possible to bring down the cost of drugs,'' she says.

Drug makers such as New York-based Pfizer, Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck and Madison, New Jersey-based Wyeth say the measure won't adequately address these concerns. ``We don't believe that re-importation is a solution to the problems of access and affordability of medications,'' Wyeth spokeswoman Natalie De Vane says. ``And it does pose a safety risk.''

Bush's call for a guest-worker visa program aimed at allowing migrants to fill low-skilled jobs may be the toughest to pass, because so many Republicans are opposed to it, says Bruce Josten, the head lobbyist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

Opening Floodgates

Representative John Hostettler, an Indiana Republican who heads the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, said he wouldn't allow any bill easing immigration to be brought before his panel for a vote. ``It is my concern and others' concerns that if you legalize those who have illegally obtained residency here, you will open the floodgates,'' he said in an interview March 31.

The National Restaurant Association, which represents companies such as Tampa, Florida-based Outback Steakhouse and Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy's International, backs Bush's plan. The food-service industry is the largest U.S. employer of undocumented workers -- about 1.4 million of the nation's 8 million immigrants.

Second-Term Blues

These kinds of defections are common in a president's second term, particularly when his party is in power in Congress, says Stephen Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University in Washington. In four of five second-term mid-term elections since World War II, the party that controlled the White House has lost seats in both chambers, says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the Cook Political Report, which tracks political races.

Most lawmakers are aware of this phenomenon, called the ``sixth-year itch,'' Duffy says, and Republicans will cast their votes on Bush's agenda items with this precedent in mind. ``It's a self-preservation issue,'' she says.

There are 15 Republican-held Senate seats on the ballot next year. In the House, where all members are up for re-election, 24 Republicans won their 2004 elections with 55 percent of the vote or less.

This dynamic is already evident in the voting behavior of Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the No. 3 Senate Republican leader, who is expected to face a tough re-election contest in 2006 from Democrat Robert Casey Jr., the state treasurer.

Good for Pennsylvania

Santorum has parted ways with the president at least twice in the last month. He proposed a $1.10-an-hour increase to the $5.15-an-hour minimum wage, and voted in favor of an amendment to a 2006 budget plan that rejected Bush's call to cut nearly $2 billion from the Community Development Block Grant program and other economic development programs that are popular in his state.

``You're going to see him deviate on things that make sense for Pennsylvania,'' Duffy says.

Perhaps most significant for Bush's legacy, his plan to establish private Social Security accounts has failed to generate a critical mass of support. The proposal has proved unpopular in the polls, and Republican lawmakers including Representative Jim Nussle of Iowa and Representative John Mica of Florida have not made commitments to support it.

Wall Street Worries

Some Republicans share Wall Street's concern over the effect of the proposal on the budget deficit, which reached a record $412 billion last year. Any plan to create the accounts would add $1 trillion to $2 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

``The longer we continue to allow the public debt to rise, the more painful the ultimate cuts will be,'' says Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP LLP, a research firm in Jersey City, New Jersey, that analyzes the effects of federal economic policies.

For many Republicans, though, concern about the deficit is mitigated by the desire to avoid the political pain that spending cuts or moderating Bush's tax cuts would entail.

During last month's Senate debate on Bush's request to extend his $1.85 trillion in tax cuts, only five Republican senators joined the chamber's 44 Democrats and one independent to demand that further reductions be offset by tax increases or spending cuts. While the Senate rejected, 50-50, an amendment to the fiscal blueprint requiring offsets, some Republicans plan to fight again this summer when party leaders advance the legislation.