Why Hill GOPers Owe Bush -- Big-Time

Congressional Republicans are riding high on Dubya's popularity coattails -- and the payback will be getting his agenda passed

By Richard S. Dunham

Congressional Republicans are in a buoyant mood these days. And for good reason. They control all the levers of power in Washington for the first time in 45 years. They've approved $1.35 trillion in tax relief (though the final details must still be worked out). And they're on their way to controlling the federal judiciary: President Bush's first 11 appellate court nominees received generally favorable reviews after their East Room debut on May 9. What's more, a new Harris Poll finds that GOP lawmakers are more popular than they've been since Newt Gingrich and his fellow revolutionaries stormed the barricades on Capitol Hill in 1994.

But House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott shouldn't be patting each other on the back. It's not their leadership skills that have put the Hill GOP in the catbird's seat. They owe the man in the White House -- big-time. And you can bet they'll make good on their debts, which will help George W. Bush's agenda in coming months on everything from fast-track trade trade-negotiating authority to the contentious missile-defense proposal.


  What's giving congressional Republicans a boost is the new President's tone. Bush talks of bipartisanship. He talks of civility and cooperation and respect. He avoids personal attacks on the political enemy. The result: Many Americans have decided that congressional Republicans have adopted a new tone, too.

That's hardly the case. True, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), a.k.a. "The Hammer," has taken a lower profile. And yes, the hate-Clinton crowd has dropped its shrill calls for impeaching or imprisoning the ex-President. But Hill Republican leaders have been as partisan, as hard-nosed, as uncompromising, as ever.

The point is voters seem to feel more kindly toward Hill Republicans because of Bush -- not because of anything the congressional crew has done. Indeed, even while Hill GOPers reached a record-high approval rate of 46%, Lott's favorable number is just 30%, and the relatively obscure Hastert clocks in at 28% approval (43% of Americans don't even know who he is).


  The congressional GOP debts to Bush date back to the 2000 campaign. The nominee helped save the Republican majority on Capitol Hill by "taking a dive" during his election battle with Democrat Al Gore. Bush steadfastly refused to condemn the partisan shenanigans of congressional Republicans through the Clinton years -- despite his deep personal distaste for the nasty partisanship displayed by his fellow GOPers.

During the campaign, Bush kept his lips zipped when congressional Republicans systematically blocked Clinton judicial nominations. Now that he's in the White House, Bush is shocked -- shocked! -- that partisan games are being played. And he wants them to end.

If Bush had been more critical of Hill hazing during his quest for the White House, he might have won a bigger victory. But he might have been working with a Democratic Congress. So Bush played it smart and kept quiet.


  Now that he's in the White House, he can start to collect the chits owed to him by congressional Republicans. And you can expect payment to come due in coming months on a couple of controversial issues. Topping the list: Presidential trade-promotion authority, known in the past as "fast-track authority." Bush wants it, but a number of House members in both parties are skeptical. Take it to the bank: Bush will put the arm on Hill Republicans. And they'll come through. They owe him.

You'll also see the White House telling Republicans to cool it on the issue of China trade (Bush soon will ask Congress to renew normal trade relations status for another year). And payment of past-due U.N. dues (many Hill Republicans are seeking vengeance for what they perceive as anti-American slights). Another test: GOP support for the yet-to-be-designed missile-defense system, another White House pet project that faces some bipartisan doubters on Capitol Hill.

In the end, congressional Republicans need a popular President in the White House to protect them in the 2002 mid-term elections. They know it. Bush knows it. They owe him, and they have to pay up.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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