Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The New Power Players

The New Power Players
The Bush legacy will be cemented, or sunk, on Capitol Hill. A user's guide to the key members of Congress who stand at his side—and in his way
By Howard Fineman

Jan. 24 issue - A veteran of the Vietnam-era Army and CIA covert ops, Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut knows how to survive in perilous situations—such as the one he finds himself in as a moderate Republican in a Democratic district. When George W. Bush put Social Security "reform" at the top of his presidential wish list, Simmons executed a tactical retreat. Asked by reporters whether he would vote to divert payroll-tax receipts into private savings accounts—the controversial core of the Bush concept—Simmons declared: "I would not consider that something I would support." His avowal won praise from some bipartisan-minded Democrats.

But not Rep. Rahm Emanuel. The new chair of the Democrats' campaign committee in the House, a Chicagoan reared in the House of Daley, he ordered an immediate strike. "We did some quick research and found some stuff," Emanuel said—including a letter that Simmons had signed in May 2001 supporting "personal retirement accounts" for younger workers paying into Social Security. Emanuel blasted e-mails and faxes to local newspapers in eastern Connecticut and talked his way onto drive-time radio in Hartford. Simmons argued that the drain on the budget caused by the war on terrorism justified the shift. No way, said Emanuel (nicknamed "Rahm-bo" by his allies), who then lobbed the all-purpose accusation of flip-floppery. "How can seniors in Norwich or Groton trust Rob Simmons with their Social Security checks," Emanuel asked, "when there's no telling what his next position will be?"

When Bush addresses the nation this week from the steps of the Capitol, he will speak in lofty, planetary terms about hope, freedom and his vision for an "ownership society." But the fate of his proposals will be settled in the building behind him, where an acrid atmosphere of suspicion and recrimination already hangs over the battlefield. For the first time since FDR in 1937, a sitting president begins his second term with strengthened majorities in both chambers, a fact that has emboldened Bush—but not necessarily all of his Republican allies. Democrats, whittled to a hard core, seem determined to resist—on Social Security to be sure, but on other issues as well, including judicial nominations. Whether things get done—or not—depends on an array of congressional characters, some familiar or famous, most known only to C-Span. Here are some:

Karl rove will radio in the plays, but the man wearing the helmet and the quarterback's mantle in the U.S. Senate is the former heart surgeon from Tennessee by way of Princeton and the Harvard Medical School. Frist promised to serve no more than two terms. After next year, he's expected to run for the GOP's 2008 presidential nomination. White House ambitions complicate a difficult task, even with a 55-45 margin. Frist will be measured by a variety of conflicting criteria: his ability to woo the GOP's conservative base and confirm their favorite judges, while still passing legislation with moderate (or even Democratic) support; impressing—or at least neutralizing—the Washington punditocracy, not to mention the man he wants to support him in 2008 (Bush) and the man he hopes will oversee his presidential campaign (Rove).

Frist has the stern, abstemious aura of a country doctor in a dry county. He's viewed by many in the Senate as a brilliant and decent man, but one a little too willing to do the White House's bidding. Predecessor Trent Lott wasn't beloved, but senators didn't like the way Frist replaced him—essentially at Rove's behest. "Frist is the first majority leader ever voted into office by the White House," one prominent Democrat said derisively. Lott, the Senate's Banquo's Ghost, has a book coming out soon. Some potshots at his successor are said to be included.

Front and center, Frist risks satisfying no one. He allowed the pro-choice Sen. Arlen Specter to remain as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, angering the right, but forced him essentially to give up his review powers, angering the prickly Pennsylvanian. Frist's game plan is to charge hard in support of the Bush agenda, and try to push through a ban on the use of delaying tactics, which require 60 votes to stop, in votes on judges. Moderates and the constitutional purists will scream. Bush and Rove will applaud. So will newly elected GOP hard-liners, led by another doctor—Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

There is too much maverick in them for cohesion, but if you scan the landscape of the Senate you can see a small band wandering in that desert: the McCainanites. Their jovially uncontrollable patriarch is the Arizonan; his band of brothers includes fellow Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Although McCain and the president aren't exactly buddies, they have buried the bitter legacy of the 2000 campaign and agree on a number of major issues, such as the war in Iraq, which McCain wholeheartedly supports, and a plan to give temporary legal residency to millions of illegal immigrants—an idea that many other GOP conservatives and union Democrats find outrageous. "I know it's a divisive issue," says McCain. "I ask my colleagues: what's your answer?"

But McCainanites are unpredictable, eager to be seen as speaking truth to power—especially when it comes to federal spending, the conduct of military operations and the preservation of what they regard as fair play in politics. Graham, a deficit hawk like his mates, has floated the idea of raising the payroll taxes on the rich to finance Social Security reform—an idea abhorrent to the White House. McCain wonders aloud if the plan to ram through judicial nominations might engender more animosity than it's worth. "There's an understandable intoxication with the recent electoral victories," he says dryly. "But will these guys overreach? I just don't know."

When Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in the Senate in 2001, she quickly decided that the Democratic leader who shared her darkly combative view of politics wasn't the tough-but-amiable Tom Daschle, but Reid of Nevada, the second in command. Ruthlessly demonized (and personally attacked by Frist), Daschle was defeated. Now it's Reid's job to lead the party's shrunken minority.

His hardscrabble story and pugnacious style match the Democrats' defiant mood. Bespectacled and soft-spoken, he favors cardigans and looks like an accountant, but his saga is depicted in Clint Eastwood terms by his fans in the party. The son of a gold miner who drank too much and eventually killed himself, Reid grew up in a tin shack in a small town. At various times he was an amateur boxer, Capitol Hill cop and chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission when it battled the mob in Las Vegas in the 1970s.

Reid already has conducted one mini-filibuster and promises to make procedural life miserable for the GOP on issues such as Social Security and judges. "If the Republicans push to privatize Social Security, we are going to fight, and I think all our Democrats in the Senate will agree," Reid says. Although Bush narrowly won Nevada, Reid may be hard for the GOP to intimidate culturally: he's a Mormon who opposes abortion and supports gun rights. "He looks like Mr. Rogers but has a backbone of steel," said one colleague.

Reid proclaims Democratic unity as a fact, but enforcing it won't be easy. Frist will try to poach on his territory. On any given vote, Frist could lose GOP support—if not from McCainanites, then from a rump parliament of New England moderates: the "Sisters of Maine," Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. The Republican arithmetic makes a group of five Democrats potentially pivotal: they're up for re-election next year in the Red States that Bush won in 2004. "It's a group we'll pay a lot of attention to," says Sen. Mitch McConnell, Frist's deputy in the Senate.

Nelson is the prototype. His state voted overwhelmingly for Bush, but the senator remains popular there. For months the White House tried to persuade him to switch parties, with rides on Air Force One and personal appeals from Frist and Lott. Bush aides sweetened the deal, sounding him out about becoming secretary of Agriculture. Nelson said "no." He knew that a Republican would replace him in Nebraska, of course. But a knowledgeable observer in the state said there was another reason: Nelson saw the offer as a Machiavellian move to put a Democrat in the unpopular role of cutting farm-subsidy programs.

Slow-moving and methodical, Nelson sounds like he's staying put in the party, but he doesn't rule out supporting a deal of some kind on Social Security. He declares that he's not opposed "in principle" to using at least some payroll-tax money for private accounts, "but I don't know how the economics of that can work. They need to show me how." In the meantime, the contest for his allegiance continues. Bush did Nelson a favor by choosing his likely foe in the Senate race next year, Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, for Ag secretary. As for the Democrats, they're showing affection in the most concrete way: pouring cash into his campaign committee.

Once Bush lays out his Social Security plan, he's likely to run into the hard-charging Emanuel, a Democratic dervish of money and message who went national as a fund-raiser for Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign and was a habitue of the "War Room." Later, operating out of the White House, he helped implement the Clinton "triangulation" strategy, honchoing the "Hundred Thousand Cops on the Street" and other programs. Elected in 2002, he managed in a blink of the eye to get a seat on Ways and Means. Two weeks ago, after the death of the much-beloved Rep. Bob Matsui, Emanuel took control of the campaign committee. He's moving at warp speed, consulting regularly with his old Clinton pals (including the former president) and naming 10 members to recruit Democratic candidates for 2006. "He's going to be THE message guy for us," predicted one Democratic strategist.

The country doesn't know who Blunt is, but Washington—from K Street to Capitol Hill—does. Among Republicans in the House, Speaker Denny Hastert is on TV more. Rep. Tom DeLay is the Democrats' Lord Voldemort. Blunt, the third in command, may be the least visible important person on the Hill. His job title—majority whip—means he's the guy who counts votes. But his real role is to act as a trusted link between the House and the White House.

Blunt comes to the job by way of history and geography. He hails from southwest Missouri—home to the honky-tonk of Branson, the Bass Fishing Outlet, the Assemblies of God and John Ashcroft. The area is a Red State watering hole for the Bush family. Bush One, eager to shed his preppy aura, campaigned there; his son has regularly followed suit. Blunt began his career working in the area for Ashcroft. Years later, when Ashcroft decided not to seek the GOP nomination—clearing a path on the right for Dubya—Blunt, by then a member of Congress, was tapped for the Bush inner circle.

He's been on the inside ever since. Mild-mannered in public, he often lives up to his family name in private. The GOP enjoys (if that is the word) a 31-vote margin in the House. Draconian rules, made ever more draconian by the GOP, give Republicans something close to free rein. But Blunt says he's told the president not to assume that things will go smoothly, especially on Social Security. Bush needs to lead on the issue by laying out enough of a plan to give the GOP House members cover on a dangerous topic. "I told him the other day, we don't intend to be the scouts. You have to be out front." The president literally will be out front this week and, politically, for the rest of the year.