Bush riding high in <BR>legislative saddle

WASHINGTON – The full force of President Bush's re-election mandate was operating at peak power when the Senate voted to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In fact, Bush has been on a blitzkrieg-like legislative roll in Congress since his inauguration. First, he accomplished his long-stalled class-action lawsuit reforms, then came Senate action on a major bankruptcy reform bill (another priority in the president's agenda), and now the approval of drilling in ANWR over the objections of the once-powerful environmental lobby.

At this rate, Bush is very likely to get the lion's share of his remaining legislation agenda before the end of this year.

Tapping into billions of barrels of oil that science knows lie beneath a few thousand acres of land in the 1.5 million acre ANWR preserve has been at the heart of Bush's energy independence plan. But he found it impossible to overcome the 60 votes needed to end a Democratic filibuster during his first term, even with the Teamsters behind him.

Several things worked together to break through the Democrats' wall of obstructionism: Bush's decisive re-election victory that has given him a clear public mandate for his agenda, and the political capital to get it; five new Republican senators in the South (all of whom voted for drilling) who replaced long-entrenched Democrats; growing national concern about the rising price of foreign oil that threatens to hamstring our economy; and the strategic decision to put the oil-drilling provision in the budget bill, which the Senate cannot filibuster.

This set up Wednesday's up-or-down vote that Bush won by a narrow 51-49 vote. Republicans had used the budget bill maneuver before in 1995, but Bill Clinton vetoed the measure. Washington's power structure is vastly different now. Republicans control the presidency and Congress, and a lot of GOP legislation is going to become law over the next two years.

This is not to say that the Senate's drilling provision is close to a done deal. Many hurdles remain for Bush to clear in the complex budget process that is a minefield of amendments, conference negotiations and parliamentary maneuvering. A well-armed coalition of environmental activists, stunned by their defeat in the Senate, declared last week that there will be a long, bitter fight to kill or block the ANWR amendment in Congress or in the courts.

"This battle is far from over," said the coalition made up of a dozen groups led by the Wilderness Society. "This is just the beginning. There is a long way to go before the drill rigs roll into the Arctic Refuge."

While the budget process is a fiendishly tricky battleground – Congress could not agree on a budget bill last year – the chances are good that it will approve one this year and that ANWR will remain in it.

The reason: huge deficits as far as the eye can see have increased the political pressure on congressional leaders to move a budget bill that will cut non-defense, non-homeland security spending levels dramatically. The president is committed to it, and so are GOP leaders.

Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist have both told their appropriations committee chairmen to get tougher on spending cuts. Both houses were working simultaneously on budget bills this past week that they hoped to negotiate and pass ahead of schedule this time.

The most surprising sign of this tight-fisted mood showed itself when the Senate voted 52-46 to kill $1 billion in Amtrak subsidies. It was the latest manifestation of the muscular political power the GOP won at the ballot box in 2004 and Bush's clout as well.

The White House proposed eliminating the subsidy for Amtrak's money-losing operations in its fiscal 2006 budget, a long-time goal of conservative budget-cutters that has always gone down to defeat. This time, though, the Senate agreed, sending a powerful new signal that this Congress is going to cut spending this year, giving Bush much, if not most, of what he wants in a nearly $2.6 trillion budget next year.

Another sign of this much more conservative Congress also came last week in the Senate when Republicans, who control the chamber by 55-44 seats, defeated a Democratic drive to make it harder to approve future tax cuts.

The so-called "pay-go" proposal, requiring that Congress pay for tax cuts with equivalent spending cuts or other revenue hikes, lost on a 50-50 tie. It was a sneak attack on Bush's plans to make his tax cuts permanent. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the powerful Finance Committee chairman, called it "a stealth tax increase" and the GOP majority prevailed.

All in all, the recent Senate votes represented the boldest display to date of the president's and the GOP's gushing political power in the halls of Congress. Suddenly, the prospects of Bush getting the Social Security reforms he wants are looking a little better.

Copyright 2005, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.