Congress watchers may feel a little unsettled when the Senate returns to work Tuesday. In recent days there has been a spate of oddly bipartisan comments, even a can-do tone among lawmakers. Just last Friday, the normally contentious Republican Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell said, "If we can work together... we can quickly have a significant accomplishment to start the year." Across the Capitol on that same day, the usually combative Democratic Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said, "Democrats welcome President Bush's willingness to work together with Congress," and promised to work with Republicans in the coming weeks.
The disorienting comity isn't just talk. In response to the rising chances of recession this year, President Bush is readying a $150 billion stimulus package that will include tax rebate checks to a large swath of American taxpayers. And while election year politics rarely produce bipartisan progress, with the economy sputtering and even the staid Fed chief Ben Bernanke supporting the idea of an immediate cash infusion, Bush's arch-enemies on the Hill are backing his proposal.
Bush himself got in on the cross-party action on a conference call last Thursday. To ease negotiations within their caucuses, leaders of both parties in the House and the Senate asked the President not to talk specifics when he rolled out the package the next day. And the President and his aides complied, offering only broad stroke outlines of the package as the White House press corps grilled them with question after question. Pelosi says she expects to pass the stimulus package sometime before Congress breaks for the Presidents' Day holidays later in February.
But don't expect bipartisanship to become the new Washington ethos: the love-fest is isolated to stemming fears of recession. By the time Bush gets up to deliver his seventh State of the Union address on Jan. 28, things will be sounding a bit more normal. Congress will soon take up the far more contentious question of domestic eavesdropping. Last summer, it passed the Protect America Act (PAA), which was designed to modernize the 1978 law controlling electronic surveillance of Americans. After initially trying to block the bill, which expanded the government's ability to track suspect individuals, Democrats caved. But in a last-ditch effort to placate civil libertarians, the Democrats attached a six-month sunset on the old law. That six-month extension ends Feb. 1 and the pressure is on for a permanent fix for the 1978 law.
Democrats find themselves in the same corner they were in last summer: on the one hand their base demands they block expanded domestic spying powers for the Bush Administration; on the other, they can't risk looking soft on terrorism, especially nine months before national elections. Senate majority leader Harry Reid is angling for another month's extension of the PAA, but that would only give the Republicans a third bite at the apple in late February.
The bitterest point of contention for Democrats will be the same question that divided them last summer: immunity for telecom companies that complied with Bush Administration requests for access to American phone and e-mail traffic without warrants after 9/11. After news of the Bush program broke, civil liberties groups brought cases against the companies, and since then the telecoms have in some cases refused to help the U.S. intelligence community further. Bush has said he will veto any bill that doesn't grant the telecoms immunity. The Democrats are split on the issue. Smart money bets the Democrats will cave again the only question is how much they fight before doing so.