Déjà Vu All Over Again

During his convention speech in New York later this week, George W. Bush will finally unveil his agenda for the next four years. I'm guessing that Bush will call on Congress to pass some of his initiatives that remain stalled. In other words, his plan for a second term could look a lot like his plan for the first.

Congress isn't finished for the year, of course. But it's unlikely that lawmakers will have time to pass much legislation, such as an energy bill, which was one of Bush's top priorities in 2000. Another issue that Bush talked about that year -- and that he may raise again now -- is privatizing Social Security.

The administration is also likely to recycle past solutions to new problems. At a town-hall meeting recently, Dick Cheney was asked by a voter whose husband is unemployed about how to keep more U.S. jobs at home. Cheney replied that Congress should make the tax cuts permanent and pass tort reform. Yes, the three tax cuts Congress has already passed really have put a stop to outsourcing while they've been in effect.

The problem for Bush is that he's had two years of majorities in Congress (as well as the first six months of 2001) to take action on issues. That's a situation that neither his father, who got a majority of senators to support the Gulf War in 1991, or Ronald Reagan, who persuaded Democrats to pass a mammoth tax cut in 1981, enjoyed. In their cases, Bush Senior and Reagan worked with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to ensure that they were successful.

The current President Bush tried doing that in 2001, and Democrats helped him pass the No Child Left Behind Act and the first tax cut. But after Bush undercut the education bill -- making Democrats wary of trusting him -- and Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords left the GOP, he has shown little interest in anything that Democrats are doing. Along with congressional Republican leaders, he's largely cut Democrats out of the legislative process. Making matters worse, Bush hasn't been able to bring Republicans together to pass bills, such as transportation reauthorization, either.

Yet don't be surprised if Bush, Cheney, or the Republican convention's keynote speaker, Democratic Senator Zell Miller, put blame principally on Democrats for the Republicans' inability to act. If they had a bigger majority in Congress, Republicans will argue, they could overcome Democrats' obstructionist tactics. But what makes Republicans think that things will be any easier if Bush wins re-election?

On Meet the Press earlier this month, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen predicted that Republicans will hold 54 Senate seats next year. That's an optimistic number, and it's still not enough to override a Democratic filibuster. Republican retirements have almost guaranteed that the GOP's majority won't increase by more than a seat or two, and it's easy to envision a scenario where Democrats are in charge.

Also, Bush has already tried his energy proposal, and Democrats have made their objections well-known. With both sides unwilling to bend, lawmakers could spend more time next year spinning their wheels than actually getting things done.

Bush wants to show that he has the “vision thing” that eluded his father, but in his first term, his vision basically amounted to tax cuts and more tax cuts. It's not clear how much patience voters will have for them tax cuts -- especially given the lagging economy and the costs of the Iraq War.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.