After Sept. 11, George W. Bush launched the Breakfast Club, a meeting held every two weeks or so with the top four leaders in Congress. The idea was to make the lawmakers feel important by treating them to scrambled eggs, coffee and the President's personality. But the Breakfast Club has not met since Feb. 27. That morning Bush led the group--Democrats Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt and Republicans Trent Lott and Dennis Hastert--on an hour-long tour of the world, briefing them on Afghanistan, Pakistan and his recent trip to Korea, Japan and China. But the next morning Daschle and Gephardt learned what he had left out. They woke up to a headline that said Bush was considering sending military advisers to fight al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. It was a major development, but Bush had not mentioned it. Daschle and Gephardt were furious.
The Breakfast Club needs a new name; you might even call it the Fight Club. Complaints that the Bush Administration has been ignoring Congress are coming from Democrats and Republicans alike--and Congress has found some extremely effective ways to punch back. For a President with strong popular support--he scored a 75% approval rating in the latest TIME/CNN poll--Bush has been on a surprising losing streak in Congress since Sept. 11. Democrats forced him to go along with making airport-security workers federal employees and yanked his corporate tax breaks out of the economic-stimulus package. G.O.P. leaders persuaded him to "postpone" Social Security reform, and members of both parties compelled him to rewrite his faith-based charity initiative so drastically that it now bears scant resemblance to the original proposal. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee shot down his nomination of Charles Pickering for the federal appeals court. And just last week the Senate, by a 60-to-40 vote, sent him John McCain's campaign-finance-reform bill, which he does not want to sign but will, and stalled an energy bill that allows drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which the White House has lobbied furiously to pass.
Bush might have won some of these fights, legislators say, if he had worked a little harder to stroke Congress. Ted Stevens, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, joined Democratic chairman Robert Byrd in an angry letter to Bush two weeks ago over Bush's refusal to allow Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge to testify before Congress. Republican Congressman Ernest Istook, who chairs the House subcommittee that controls the Office of Homeland Security's budget, hinted that he might hold up funds unless Ridge comes forth. (After all that, the White House began talking about a compromise.) And some Republicans grumble that by refusing to release information to Congress about Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, the White House has pointlessly provided the Democrats with ammunition in their effort to portray Bush and the G.O.P. as tools of Big Business. "Why antagonize people you're going to need down the road?" asks a senior Republican Senator. "I don't get it."