Thursday night, as McCain-Feingold began to squint at the sunlight of victory, Trent Lott announced that Bush's 2001 budget and the 10 years of tax cuts and spending curbs planted therein had exactly half the Senate on its side.
"We will have the votes," Lott declared, and at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, designated tie-breaker Dick Cheney and his old, old heart snapped to attention. On Friday, the hot wind on the Senate floor was again swirling around tax cuts, surpluses and national priorities, and after keeping to the sidelines while McCain accepted his Holy Grail, George W. Bush can get back to the fundamental question of his presidency thus far: Is changing the tone of Washington really worth compromising?
There could be some Thursday-night connection between what John McCain wanted a victory for campaign finance reform and what Trent Lott wanted, which was a few Republican moderates to help send his president off on Easter recess with a brand-new budget. In any case, a foot-dragging Tom Daschle got the budget disruption he wanted by spilling McCain-Feingold over into next week, but whatever magic the Republicans worked to get their tally to 50 will go down as Lott's great coup.
Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut, you see, was in grave danger of being forgotten. Sure, the Republican-run House was marching faithfully onward, passing the overall budget resolution by a party-line vote Wednesday and two parts of the Bush tax cut the marriage-penalty reduction and the doubling of the child-care tax credit on Thursday. Then the Ways and Means Committee went and did likewise with estate-tax repeal.
But in the Senate, the Democrats had finally seized on the fact that Bush's loud pleadings for economic stimulus didn't match up with his tax cut, and of course they had a solution: Hand out $60 billion this year, right now, and put the $1.6 trillion back on the negotiating table for May. (Translation: Wait for the cry for immediate economic stimulus to die down, and re-mount the attack on the old grounds of fiscal risk and class inequity.)
Now Lott and Bush have the $60 billion and the $1.6 trillion back where they want them: together. And the ability of Republicans to ram Bush's back-loaded tax cut through gives them the upper hand in dictating what gets into voters' wallets this year and what they can demand from Democrats as the price of a crowd-pleasing 2001 rebate.
Back in the recent past, when Bush's vote count was stuck at 47, there was much talk of compromise. It was only last Tuesday that Bush was getting behind a retroactive cut, Larry Lindsey was putting death-tax repeal on the block to pay for it, and it looked as if Bush would use the economy as an excuse to let Lott do what he had to to get 10 Democrats on board.
That may still happen. And with Wall Street and Main Street living through a downturn and understandably wondering if Washington really intends to do anything to help, it might even be good governance for Bush. He could use a little stature reinflation these days, especially now that the success of campaign finance reform is in danger of bringing idealism back in style.
Then again, McCain never did bring out Bush's kinder, gentler side and neither does the Bill Clinton legacy. From overseas abortion funding to carbon-dioxide emissions, Bush has been eager to show he is a political child of the Reagan years, and willing to play the reactionary if the conservatives chant loud enough. And now that the Clinton boom is stumbling, Bush sees an opportunity to take back fiscal policy for the GOP. Tax cuts and government shrinkage those are sacred conservative cows, and we've already seen some of Bush's best hardball as he goes down the Senate line yanking on arms.
What kind of a deal will he cut now that he's got the leverage?