Thursday, February 17, 2005

Bush Combs Senate for Friendly Democrats

The Wall Street Journal

February 16, 2005

Bush Combs Senate for Friendly Democrats
White House Lobbyists
Estimate a Third of Opposition
Will Provide Occasional Support

February 16, 2005; Page A4

WASHINGTON -- From the tone in the capital lately, you might think President Bush couldn't expect support from any Democrat in Congress.

In the past few days, the Democratic Party made Bush critic Howard Dean its chairman, and top House Democratic tax writer, Rep. Charles Rangel, pronounced the president's Social Security plan "dead."

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid recently upbraided the White House for personally attacking him through the Republican National Committee.

But in fact there are some Democrats who may yet help Mr. Bush accomplish parts of his agenda. "We spend a lot of time trying to understand what makes these people tick," says a senior White House official -- and the administration's efficiency in capitalizing on that will be critical to Mr. Bush's second-term success.

The pool of potential collaborators is smaller than it was. Mr. Bush's closest Democratic ally, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, has retired. Gone as well are several who cast crucial votes for Mr. Bush's first-term tax cuts: Sens. Max Cleland of Georgia, Jean Carnahan of Missouri, Robert Torricelli of New Jersey and John Breaux of Louisiana.

Still, White House lobbyists estimate that as many as a third of the 44 Democratic senators will provide occasional assistance on issues such as energy, judicial nominations, tax-code overhaul and perhaps even Social Security. Since Republicans need 60 votes to overcome Democratic filibusters, and have just 55 of their own, winning converts isn't optional.

Some are good prospects for the White House because of their ideological orientation. Hawkish Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, though he spent part of 2004 bashing the White House during his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, has backed Mr. Bush at important moments on national security.

Others are propelled toward cooperation by constituent interests. On energy legislation, for instance, the administration hopes for help from Democrats representing energy-producing states, such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Perhaps most important for the White House are those Democrats who must cope with broad home-state support for Mr. Bush. Five Democratic senators -- Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Evan Bayh of Indiana -- represent states that Mr. Bush carried with at least 60% of the vote in November. Messrs. Nelson and Conrad are up for re-election in 2006.

Democrats from decidedly "red," or pro-Bush, states have been the focus of the president's public lobbying on Social Security. Mr. Conrad was aboard Air Force One for the president's recent trip to North Dakota for a town meeting on the issue.

"The president made an earnest attempt to win [Mr. Conrad] over on Social Security," says Conrad spokesman Chris Thorne. Mr. Conrad has said there is "a kernel of a good idea" in the president's plan. But he dislikes the idea of large-scale borrowing to finance a transition to private accounts, and there is no indication yet he is preparing to sign on.

Overhauling the Democratic touchstone of Social Security may be the most difficult initiative for Mr. Bush to win cross-party cooperation on. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, who four years ago smoothed passage of Mr. Bush's tax cuts as ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, appears unlikely to assist Mr. Bush this time.

Mr. Reid says every Senate Democrat opposes creating private accounts with Social Security payroll taxes. Some analysts believe Mr. Bush will encounter similar resistance on overhauling the tax system, though former Democratic Sen. Breaux is co-chairman of a commission exploring ideas on the subject.