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GOP losses free president to compromise

Published November 10, 2006


Republican George Allen conceded in the Virginia Senate race Thursday, ending the prospect of a lengthy recount and sealing the victory for challenger Jim Webb. It means Democrats will control both houses of Congress.

At first, that looks like a recipe for gridlock: a Democratic Congress and a Republican president known for being stubborn.

But the political wave that gave the Democrats control also gives President Bush something he lacked when Republicans were in charge: a license to compromise.

Bush is no longer tethered to his party's agenda and can now cooperate with Democrats in ways that weren't possible when Republicans ran the show. If he and the Democrats are willing and I'm not sure they are, they can spend the next two years tackling difficult problems such as immigration and the solvency of Social Security and Medicare. And on some issues, particularly immigration, they have more common ground than you might expect.

For six years, Bush has played to his party's conservative base. He appointed conservative judges, cut taxes and pushed his "faith-based initiative" so religious groups could receive federal money for providing social services.

Bush played hardball against the Democrats because it helped his legislative strategy. It solidified the GOP base and led to remarkable party unity. Republicans voted with him nearly 90 percent of the time.

Likewise, the Democrats refused to budge on many issues, trying to prevent their enemy from winning even the smallest victory. At times, they seemed more interested in denying Bush a win than solving problems.

But hardball won't work any more. For either side. Bush and the Democratic Congress must compromise if they want to get anything accomplished.

Compromise? Bush? That hasn't been one of his strengths.

"When President Bush is convinced he's right, he doesn't make deals," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee who often has to negotiate with Bush and his aides.

During the 2004 campaign, Bush portrayed himself as more principled than pragmatic, a guy who would rather lose than sacrifice his principles.

Indeed, compromise isn't easy. Sometimes it takes more courage to compromise than it does to be unyielding. You have to be able to go back to your allies and say: "We didn't get everything, but we got enough." You must be willing to take some heat from them in return for accomplishment.

But Bush has been more flexible than many people realize.

As governor of Texas, he had good relations with Democrats in the state Legislature. As president, he initially opposed a Democratic proposal to create a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. But when he realized Congress was sure to pass it, he changed his mind and then took credit for the idea.

He might learn a lesson from his predecessor. Some of Bill Clinton's biggest legislative achievements - welfare reform and the balanced-budget deal - occurred when Republicans ran Congress.

The Democrats now taking control are frustrated because Republicans often shut them out, preventing them from proposing amendments and having much of a voice in legislation. The Republican leadership could muster enough votes without them, so the Democrats were practically irrelevant. They were left on the sidelines with little to do except gripe.

But the Democrats are running Congress now, and they can't spend the next two years whining about Bush or their new majority could disappear in the elections of 2008. They have to compromise, too.

Since Tuesday's vote, there have been positive signs that both sides are willing to govern rather than play games.

Bush was remarkably humble in a news conference Wednesday, describing the election as "a thumping" for his party. He pledged to cooperate.

"I'm confident that we can work together," he said. "I'm confident we can overcome the temptation to divide this country between red and blue. The issues before us are bigger than that and we are bigger than that."

After having lunch with Bush on Thursday, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she and the president recognize that "we have our differences and we will debate them, and that is what our founders intended. But we will do so in a way that gets results for the American people."

Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at or (202) 463-0575.

- President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress overhauled the nation's welfare system and struck a five-year agreement to balance the federal budget.

- Ex-President George Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act and the most far-reaching deficit reduction program in recent history.

- President Ronald Reagan and the Democratic Congress overhauled the tax system and put Social Security on a self-sustaining path for three decades.

- President Richard Nixon and the Democratic Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency and enacted the Clean Air Act.

- President Dwight Eisenhower and the Democratic-controlled Congress established the Interstate highway system.

[Last modified November 10, 2006, 05:35:33]

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