WASHINGTON - As Washington goes back to work this week, there is little talk of “working together” or “bipartisanship'' as President Bush and Congress prepare to square off on one quarrel after another in a big-stakes effort to control the agenda.
Mr. Bush and the Democratic leadership disagree on issues that are of prime importance to millions of Americans: Spending, new education rules, a patients' bill of rights, trade, drilling in the Alaskan Natural Wildlife Refuge, and using tax dollars on faith-based social services.
There also will be internal fights such as whether hundreds of presidential nominees are confirmed.
After Democrats signaled they will attack Mr. Bush's tax cut as the root cause of the disappearance of the Social Security non-surplus, he said he welcomes the approaching battle. “I look forward to hearing the debate: `Mr. President, I think you're wrong, we should raise taxes on the people, particularly after they just got their $600 check.'''
But he also has signaled a new campaign as he hopes to get Congress to do what he wants.
He said that in Crawford, Texas, where he spent most of his 26-day vacation, people side with him, not the Democrats.
He said most people are interested in their families, whether it is going to rain, the price of fuel, and insurance rates. They are “not worried about the partisan squabbling that has kind of sullied the Washington scene at times,'' he scoffed.
Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D., S.D.) says, “You don't have to look hard to find potential collisions'' between Congress and the White House.
He accuses Mr. Bush of being unrealistic about having enough money to pay for his tax cut, education, and defense spending plans.
When Senator Daschle lays out his agenda for the Senate, he lists education, the 13 appropriations bills to fund the $2 trillion cost of government, funding Medicare and Social Security through the baby boomer era, energy policy, stem-cell research, prescription-drug benefits, campaign finance, and a higher minimum wage. But he has major disagreements with the White House on every one of those issues.
While in Texas, Mr. Bush regularly assembled his political team to craft Mr. Bush's autumn political strategy. Concerned about polls that are starting to blame Mr. Bush for the shrinking surplus and eager to change an emerging perception by many Americans that Mr. Bush is primarily a tax-cutting conservative, the White House hopes to reintroduce Mr. Bush as caring and compassionate.
A consistent effort was made last month to broadcast cheerful pictures of Mr. Bush with children and minorities, showing off his ranch, golfing, and watching Little Leaguers - relaxed and wearing jeans.
In contrast, most of members of Congress disappeared from the national radar, except for Democrat Gary Condit, facing a barrage of criticism for his behavior in the wake of the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy.
Mr. Bush gets higher marks from the public than Congress. A Gallup poll last month found that 56 percent of Americans approved of Mr. Bush's first six months on the job, compared with only 47 percent expressing approval of Congress.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer says Mr. Bush's style - soothing, schmoozing, and marked by charm and reasonableness - worked to his advantage in getting the $1.35 trillion tax cut passed. And, said Mr. Fleischer, it will work again to get his education bill passed despite increasing opposition from some education groups and polls showing that 57 percent of Americans say Mr. Bush's plan for standardized testing is not the best way to measure a child's performance in school.
After Mr. Bush's first prime-time TV speech to the nation Aug. 9 announcing he will allow limited federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, the public's approval of his controversial decision climbed to 55 percent.
Mr. Bush's top aides admit they are forging much of their strategy from former President Reagan's play book. He liked to make trips out of Washington, which Mr. Bush has done this past month in his “Home to the Heartland'' tours of states he needs to win re-election in 2004.
And everywhere he has repeated his message of continuing planned tax cuts, instituting more standardized tests in education, limiting patients' rights to sue HMOs, providing more access to prescription drugs, and permitting more exploration for oil and natural gas on public lands.
While the public likes Mr. Bush's plan to develop missile-defense technology, many are leery of his plans for more defense spending. He says he wants to “provide the largest increase in military spending since Ronald Reagan was the president.”
A majority of Americans expressed concern to pollsters that the possible end of the budget surplus will mean Mr. Bush won't be able to keep his promises to increase defense spending, cut taxes, and balance the budget - exactly what Mr. Reagan promised.
Eager to rise above the nasty partisanship everyone expects this autumn in Washington, Mr. Bush is borrowing some of Mr. Reagan's stagecraft, traveling to Independence, Mo., for example, to stand under a picture of Harry Truman to insist he will deliver on his prescription-drug proposal .
Mr. Bush says that he decided this past month that he will have his best shot at getting Congress to do his bidding if he does more traveling “and speaking about my agenda and the values behind it.''
But he is still solidifying that agenda. For example, a few weeks ago he proposed permitting some illegal Mexican immigrants to gain legal residency. Polling indicates that 49 percent of Americans oppose the idea and only 43 percent favor it.
Mr. Bush will speak about immigration Thursday when he meets with Mexican President Vicente Fox in Toledo.
Presaging the battle over the budget, Mr. Bush in recent days has argued that a large surplus is not a good thing because it is hoarded money earned by taxpayers, and members of Congress are tempted to spend it.
One of the most rancorous arguments this fall will be whether to spend at least $9 billion in Social Security revenue to pay for operating the government, something Congress and Mr. Bush pledged they would not do even though it will have no impact on current benefits.
The vitriol is becoming more apparent each day. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe has begun accusing Mr. Bush of breaking promises. “He promised not to spend the Medicare Trust Fund; last week his Office of Management and Budget reported that he has. He promised not to spend the Social Security Trust Fund; despite budget gimmicks the Congressional Budget Office [reports] that $9 billion will disappear from the Social Security surplus.''
Republicans in Congress argue that going ahead with the tax cut next year is important to juice up the economy - and keep spending increases limited to what Mr. Bush proposes for defense and education while cutting plans for Democratic-led spending.
House majority leader Dick Armey (R, Texas) says of Democrats, “Their sudden concern for the surplus is a mask to disguise their true intentions - repeal tax relief and spend the money on more risky spending schemes.”
Mr. Armey and other Republicans say that despite the Democrats' argument that Social Security surpluses should be spent only to pay down the national debt, Democrats “raided over $326 billion in Social Security surpluses'' from 1990 to 1995.
House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri retorts that all that money was paid back when the surpluses, which began in 1998 while former President Clinton was in office and Republicans controlled the House and Senate, were used to pay off $473 billion of the national debt.
Mr. Bush says that he wants to convince Americans that the greatness of the country lies in their character, “not in the halls of government.''