Bush’s State of Union may be least consequential in a generation, suggests congressional expert

Republicans, Democrats poised for period of productive compromise

President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address on Jan. 23 may be remembered as one of the least consequential State of the Union addresses in a generation, but its presentation could open the door on a period of real legislative compromise as both parties struggle to boster reputations in advance of the 2008 elections, suggests Steven Smith, an expert on congressional politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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“Even though the Republicans took it on the chin in the 2006 election, they’re not going to just rollover. They’re going to use their ability to obstruct and this will force compromise,” says Smith, the author of five books on congressional politics and director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University.

“The Democrats will be willing to compromise in order to show that they can govern. More than anything else this Senate is about 2008 — both parties wanting to show that they can govern responsibly.”

Bush is in no position to push any of his own personal agendas, says Smith.

“This is a president whose poll ratings are at bottom — they’re as low now as they have been anytime in the last year or so,” Smith explains, “so this isn’t a president whose initiatives are going to be setting the congressional agenda. Congressional Democrats are going to set their own agenda.”

Smith, the University’s Kate M. Gregg Professor of Social Sciences in Arts & Sciences, expects the speech to signal that Bush is willing to work with a Democratic congress in areas such as strengthening social security, bringing more flexibility to “no child left behind” education reforms and spurring the development of alternative energy sources.

“This is a president who is worrying about his legacy and in the domestic area there’s only a few things where he’s liable to get much out of this Democratic congress,” Smith says. “They’re going to have to be areas of the Democrats’ choosing.”

Republicans have begun shifting stance in favor of providing health insurance to all children, so we can expect the president to be moving in this direction too, says Smith. However, any healthcare proposal the president puts forth is likely to come with some form of increased taxes, a move that’s bound to anger the Republican base.

“The president is in a bind,” Smith says. “He cannot propose anything like a national health program, so what he’s going to propose are some tax solutions. He’s going to try to create some new incentives for people to pick up insurance — incentives through the tax code.”

“His proposal is likely to be dead on arrival, but it will signal Congress that the time has come for them to act on healthcare — that will be an opening for the Democrats to fashion a proposal of their own. I think that this debate over the course of the next two years is going to fought on the Democrats’ home field, not on the president’s.”

Generally, Smith expects to see a legislative pattern emerging in which Democrats put forth a fairly strong liberal program, Republicans obstruct and then everyone scrambles to work out a behind-closed-door compromise.

Republican are not going to let the Democrats get everything they want. On the other hand, the Democrats are smart enough to bring forward fairly popular proposals that the Republicans won’t want to block forever.”

“This is a recipe for compromise — behind-the-scenes compromise,” Smith says. “And so what we’re going to see in this Congress, I think, is most of the action occurring behind the scenes in the leadership offices of the Senate. The House is going to produce a liberal bill, the administration is going to stick to a conservative position and the real action is going to be behind the scenes to overcome obstructionism in the Senate.”

Republicans will be open to working with Democrats on some key issues as long as they can claim to have forced some concessions, as long as they can go back to their home state Republicans and say we made a difference.

For the first time, suggests Smith, both parties may be poised to make significant progress on legislation related to global warming concerns.

“Public opinion has swung more strongly to the view that global warming is a serious problem, so much so that now Republicans are championing the cause as well. So I think what we’re going to see from the Republicans on Capitol Hill and to a degree from the White House even in the State of the Union address is some recognition of the global warming problem, a willingness to focus not only on expanding domestic oil production, which has been the emphasis of the Republican Party, but a far, far, far greater emphasis on alternative energy sources — that represents a big shift in the thinking of Republicans and creates an opportunity for significant legislation in this area that we haven’t seen before.”

Editor’s note: Professor Smith is available for phone, e-mail and broadcast interviews. Washington University has VYVX and ISDN lines available for news interviews.