WASHINGTON — Wow! What a list of things to do for U.S. President-elect George W. Bush. It is long, and the degree of difficulty of almost every item on the list is of Olympian proportion.
Not the least priority is filling the thousands of policy and supporting positions in the new administration. But the personnel work is simple compared to the other demands that will be made of the new president. In his victory speech, Bush restated elements of his policy agenda. It is bold and it is large. And, given the close balance of the Congress, it will be very difficult to fulfill.
The divisions of the nation on policy are great, and the emotions that have attached to these divisions since Nov. 7 have escalated the level of contentiousness. Bush will need to use his moral power to soothe the populace.
The credibility of American institutions has been damaged. The courts, in particular the Supreme Court, have lost their political virginity and are seen as manipulators of the electoral process. Perhaps the new president can help restore their pre-election posture.
The election process, machinery and administrators have been shown to be inefficient, inaccurate and rife with partisanship. Election administration, in addition to the role of money in the campaigns, needs to be addressed promptly to provide American voters some confidence that their votes really do count.
The fault lines on issues are so dramatic and so close that today’s polls describe a nation nearly ready for civil war. The emotional rhetoric on social issues and other related questions need to be defused and replaced by a new tone of compromise.
The new president is not likely to get much help from Congress in addressing these issues. The 104th Congress is very closely divided and not in a compromising mood.
In the Senate, there will be 50 Democrats and 50 Republican members. The vice president serves as the presiding officer and is allowed to vote to break ties. Thus from the convening of Congress on Jan. 3 at noon until the inauguration of Bush and Dick Cheney on Jan. 20, Vice President Al Gore will preside and provide the margin of majority to the Democrats. From Jan. 20, Cheney will provide the Republicans with the majority.
The whole question of division of responsibilities, committee apportionments, budgets and other items is still in the process of negotiation. Senate rules provide that committee memberships are divided in proportion to the makeup of the entire Senate. This gives rise to the Democrats’ suggestion that all committees should be 50-50 and that there should be co-chairmanships. Understandably, the Republicans are bristling at the thought of this even split.
The Senate rules provide for unlimited debate. That means that a senator, once gaining recognition to speak, can hold the floor for as long as he wants. This allows for a filibuster on almost any question. To break the filibuster, cloture must be invoked and that requires 60 votes. Thus, the Senate can be prevented from action on any or all subjects by the efforts of just 41 members.
Over the past few years, while the division was in the 56-44 to 54-46 range, it was assumed that any bill would need to have 60 votes to pass and many measures simply dropped off the table for lack of support. With a 50-50 split, the need for bipartisan support will be even greater.
In the House of Representatives, the Republican majority is 221-212 (with two independents, one of whom votes with the Republicans and one who votes with the Democrats.) That is just one less Republican than in the previous House. The management problems in the House are not as significant as in the Senate — no cloture necessary, and one party does have a clear, if tiny, majority.
This is just the start of a definition of the problems the new president will face when he looks to the Hill. His Republicans are divided into at least two camps: very conservative and moderate. The two groups see the world very differently. The Republican leaders of both Houses represent the conservative wings of their caucuses and they are ideologues, not particularly compromising people. They have their own agenda and they will push Bush to support it. It will not be a pleasant situation and it can hamper progress on many fronts. It is said that Bush will be able to get along with Senate majority leader Tom Daschle more easily than with Tom DeLay, the House Republican whip.
Dealing with his Republican congressional leadership will present Bush with perhaps his most difficult tasks. He is likely to reach out to the moderates of both parties to craft his own majority. The moderate Republicans know their value. They have already begun to organize and to proselytize among like-minded Democrats to form a voting bloc that can move the legislation on the big issues in a way they prefer.
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