Is Bush's Honeymoon Ending?

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With Bill Clinton's pardons mess still dominating the headlines and the nation's attention, George W. Bush hasn't had to do much to look good in his first month in office. Every new president gets a honeymoon, but for a president who comes into office with the legitimacy problems that Bush did, this one's a honeymoon with a supermodel and a case of Viagra.

But whether or not the Clinton story fades any time soon, every honeymoon has to end. TIME congressional correspondent Douglas Waller reports from the tax-cut trenches.

First of all, what's it been like for the Democrats for the first month of Bush's term?

Doug Waller: Democrats have felt slam-dunked since Jan. 20. They've been seething over how Bill Clinton has kept Bush's honeymoon strong with the pardons mess, and in the Congress, Democrats have been groping to cobble together a voice as powerful as Bush's.

That was something they hadn't had to worry about in the past eight years, when Clinton was the voice of the Democratic party and could drown out the Republicans when he had to. Now the voice of the Democratic party is fractured among Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, New Democrats like Sen. John Breaux and assorted senior committee members.

Some Senate Democrats had hoped that Clinton could be a counterweight voice to Bush on issues like tax cuts when he left the White House. With Bush setting a top-line number of $1.6 trillion in cuts but letting Congress have a good bit of discretion in deciding what cuts will be included, it would have been nice to have Clinton as a voice to set the debate on what kind of cuts should be made within that $1.6 trillion. As one key Senate aide told me, "The liberals would have liked for Clinton to weigh in, but he can't. Tactically, the Republicans have neutered him."

What chance do the Democrats have of turning the tables without Clinton, and when?

DW: Well, next week Bush delivers his State of the Union address and unveils the details of his budget, which is a key moment for him. And congressional Democrats are already sensing a shift in momentum to their way.

Two moderate Republicans, Sen. James Jeffords and Sen. Lincoln Chafee, have announced they are leery of a tax cut as high as $1.6 trillion. Jeffords likely will be brought back into the GOP fold, say Republican and Democratic Senate sources, but Chafee is a problem for Bush. So is Sen. Olympia Snowe, who has been talking up the idea of a "trigger" to kick in a higher tax cut only if surplus projections pan out.

Senate Democrats also say Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has been less than impressive in pitching Bush's tax cut plan. Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici has warned the White House that the plan is already in trouble. By holding out the $1.6 trillion figure as all or nothing, Democrats say Bush is looking inflexible and unrealistic.

Max Baucus, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said today that "there's a sense that his fixating on not one penny more and not one penny less than $1.6 trillion is beginning to cause a problem for him."

Does the budget address mean a new phase of scrutiny for the plan?

DW: Absolutely. Bush also can't get away any longer with just talking about spending and tax cuts in generalities. Baucus all this week and last has been borrowing from the "Jerry McGuire" film and chiding Bush to "show us the budget." Bush succeeded in his charm offensive with Democrats during his first three weeks in the White House. But the meetings were devoid mostly of specifics and their value couldn't last forever.

As Baucus said, "We're into the governing stage now," says Baucus. "We're out of the campaign stage. We're going to be looking for specifics, not generalities." Democrats believe that when Bush has to present the specifics of his plan for governing the country next week, he will be more vulnerable to attack. The honeymoon will be over.

Of course, Bush has heard that one before, and here he is.

DW: Well, there's this danger that Congressional Democrats are playing into Bush's hands. The White House already knows that Bush's honeymoon will end soon and its top people are previewing this to reporters so they set the bar low for Bush. He's a master at keeping expectations low, then exceeding them. As one senior Senate GOP aide told me, "We are going to be aggressively underestimating ourselves throughout the entire process. That way we husband the momentum of the President and weather some of these ups and downs."