Next president faces long odds against bipartisan reforms

WASHINGTON — John McCain and Barack Obama both promise new ways of bridging the partisan divide in gridlocked Washington.

The people who run Washington are skeptical.

Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the second-ranking House Republican, doubts Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, can succeed.

"There is nothing in his background . . . to indicate he has ever really reached across the aisle," Blunt said. "If he is infatuated with his own life (enough) to write two autobiographies, I assume he is happy with the way he has been acting, and he hasn't been acting in a bipartisan way legislatively anywhere."

Democrats are just as unimpressed with Republican nominee McCain's ability to bring warring lawmakers together.

"He votes with Republicans 90 percent of the time. He's been more of a sidekick than a maverick," said Sen. Bob Casey, a first-term Pennsylvania Democrat.

History suggests that the new president will have a honeymoon period of about six months to win bipartisan approval of a top priority or two. But even veteran consensus-builders are less than confident that history will repeat itself next year.

"Things are dramatically different," said Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, a 29-year congressional veteran. "We used to have a period of governance and then a period of campaigning.''

Today, she said, nearly everyone in Congress feels compelled to raise lots of money year-round, so they must constantly appeal to partisan donors who often do not appreciate compromise.

Said John Geer, editor of the Journal of Politics: "We have a party system that is very much polarized. There will be a lot of talk about coming together, but there was a lot of talk about that after 9/11, too, and it really didn't last long."

Yet reaching across the partisan aisle is usually crucial to any president's success. Two-thirds majorities are needed to overturn presidential vetoes, and it takes 60 Senate votes to stop a filibuster.

Not since the 95th Congress of Jimmy Carter's first two years in 1977-78 has either party had filibuster-proof dominance. And barring a 2008 landslide win, which polls suggest is unlikely, neither party is likely to begin next year with such strength.

In the past, presidents succeeded early in their terms because they had just enough opposition-party support to push legislation through. In 1981, Ronald Reagan's 25 percent tax cut prevailed in a Democratic-majority House when 48 Democrats joined all but one of the 191 Republicans to pass it.

Bill Clinton won approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, despite strong opposition from organized labor and its Democratic allies, with crucial Republican support. And Democrats helped George W. Bush succeed in his first year with his $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut and No Child Left Behind initiative.

In the current Congress, however, both sides have had difficulty enacting major legislation. The Democratic majority couldn't get a firm timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. They're struggling to pass energy legislation. And with the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, no spending bills have been passed.

Some lawmakers rest their hope for bipartisanship next year on a historic anomaly: The next president will be coming straight from the Senate for the first time since John F. Kennedy in 1961.

"The next president will understand how Congress works. He's less likely to be dictatorial, and more willing to listen," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., thought Obama's campaign operation proves he will stress civility over partisan strife.

"Look at the campaign as a metaphor," Carper said. "You hear almost nothing about any infighting, and the people are pleasant and cooperative."

McCain backers countered that their candidate has a long history of working with others. "John McCain works best when he reaches out, and the first people he would reach out to would be Democratic leaders," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

Not everyone was so confident.

"He's known to be impatient," Snowe said of McCain.

"He seems to be more convivial these days," Feinstein added. "You can't underestimate my surprise at seeing that."

And Obama has little experience at bipartisan compromise.

"Barack Obama's experience is basically running a campaign," said former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, a spokeswoman for the McCain campaign.

The biggest obstacle could be which fight the new president chooses. McCain and Obama are not far apart on issues such as energy policy or, arguably, ethics. But the dominant issue in this election so far has been the economy, and their views on that are widely divergent.

Most of the Bush administration 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are set to expire Jan. 1, 2011, and McCain wants to make them permanent. Obama favors letting most breaks for the wealthy expire while cutting taxes further for the middle and working classes.

McCain remembers the lesson of George H. W. Bush, who vowed "read my lips, no new taxes" in 1988. Two years later, he and Democrats agreed on a budget deal that raised taxes $137 billion over five years. Bush lost his bid for re-election in 1992.

"He got thrown out of office for it," recalled David Carney, Bush's political director.

Obama has campaigned vigorously as a champion of the middle class, someone who would end what he calls unfair breaks for the wealthy. "We're giving away billions to wealthy people," said Casey, who was an early Obama supporter.

Neither side seems inclined to give in; the positions are too central to each party's platform.

Said Gary Jacobson, professor of political science at the University of California-San Diego, and an expert on Congress: "McCain and Obama are not that far apart on energy policy and on foreign policy. Both have put themselves in position to wind down the war. But I don't think they'll get anything like they want on tax policy. They're just too far apart right now."


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