Saturday, September 23, 2006

Congress underscores Bush's weakness


The BBC's Richard Allen Greene in Washington writes his weekly diary highlighting key issues in the US mid-term elections.

In my neighbourhood in Washington, George W Bush's presidency is already over.

You can see it on the T-shirts, such as the one that simply says: "20 January 2009", the day Mr Bush will step down and hand power to whoever wins the 2008 election.

And you can see it on the bumper stickers.

I have already seen a car with "Clinton/Obama 2008" plastered on its rear, articulating the hope of many liberals that Hillary Clinton will run for president, with the mixed-race first-term Senator Barack Obama as her vice-presidential choice.

Mr Obama, one of the few true media stars of the Senate, set journalists' pulses racing this week with a trip to Iowa.

Because Iowa's political parties are among the first in the nation to choose their preferred presidential candidates, any politician who steps into the cornfields is widely assumed to be considering a run for the White House, and Mr Obama kept the rumour mill churning by refusing to say flatly that he was not doing so.

Lame duck?

But amidst the hype about the future, what about the man who is president of the United States now, and will be for the next two-and-a-half years?

Well, while his foes dream of the day Mr Bush's term actually ends, it may already be essentially finished for all practical purposes.
Mid-term elections - which will determine control of both houses of Congress for the last two years of his presidency - are now less than 50 days away.

That means every member of the House of Representatives, and one-third of the Senate, is far more focused on his or her own career than anything the president wants to do.

Double trouble

So two of Mr Bush's signature proposals of this political season are in trouble.

One dates back to the very early days of his presidency, if not before - a complete overhaul of America's failing immigration system.

As a Texan who has seen at first hand what Latin American immigrants have contributed to the country - and as an ally of business, which likes cheap immigrant labour - Mr Bush wanted a new system that would allow at least some of the illegal immigrants already here to become citizens.

The Senate backed him, but the House of Representatives disagreed strongly, passing a bill that would increase the penalties on illegal immigrants and those who help them.

The two chambers seemed unable to compromise, and by the beginning of September, immigration reform seemed dead, at least for this Congressional term.

More pressing matters had arisen, anyway.

The Supreme Court had struck down Mr Bush's plan to try suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay by military tribunals, and the president spent the final weeks of the summer pressing Congress to pass a law reinstating the commissions and allowing harsh interrogations.

This time, the House supported him, but the Senate rebelled - led by three senior members of the president's own Republican party.

With that issue deadlocked, what should crop up again but immigration? And when that battle was rejoined, all talk was of border controls, not of paths to citizenship: a setback for the president.

Then suddenly a "compromise" on interrogations was in the works - one that looks much more like the rebel Republicans' plan than the president's.

Time running out

The clock is running down on this Congress. It will sit for only one more week before a month-long break for campaigning.

The president's approval ratings are low in the polls, suggesting he is no help to Congressional Republicans.

Congress is even less popular than the president, and pundits are talking ominously of 1994, the year the Democrats were swept out of power after decades of running the legislature.

This past week's agenda shows clearly what is on the candidates' minds. It is not the president's agenda.

It is saving their skins.

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