WASHINGTON – Stung by criticism that it was neglecting its domestic agenda, the Bush administration leaned on congressional Republicans and reached out to Democrats to help break stalemates on key pieces of economic legislation.
A stampede of bills -- on corporate fraud, trade, bankruptcy and more -- came as concern rose among Republican strategists that the recent wave of business scandals threatened to take a political toll on their party in the November congressional elections, with control of both the House and the Senate at stake.
As one big compromise after another was struck, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer declared it "a notable week of accomplishment."
At the same time, Fleischer announced that President Bush would interrupt his August vacation at his ranch to oversee an "economic forum" in nearby Waco, Texas. Participants will range from CEOs and small business owners to industry experts and unionized workers.
Bush made a hastily arranged trip to the Capitol Friday afternoon to make a final appeal to Republicans to stand together on a bill to restore presidential authority to negotiate international trade deals. Fleischer went out of his way to praise a small band of Democrats expected to join Republicans in voting for the measure.
It was all part of a stepped-up effort by the White House to answer criticism, some of it from Republicans, that it was not doing enough to shore up confidence in the economy, badly shaken by business scandals and stock-market turmoil.
Although concessions came from both sides of the aisle, most of the major ones over the past few days came from Republicans after prodding from the White House and congressional GOP leaders, according to participants in both the administration and Congress.
Passage of the major business reform bill -- including a sweeping overhaul of accounting practices and tough new penalties on corporate fraud -- came after Rep. Michael Oxley, the Ohio Republican who heads the House Financial Services Committee, dropped his efforts to postpone work on a final compromise until fall.
Bush is poised to sign the bill next week.
"I think the mending process is under way," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., referring to the public's loss of confidence in corporate America and its government regulators.
"The feeding frenzy is still under way," Lott said. "Hopefully, that will begin to fade away as necessary actions are taken over the next few weeks."
Meanwhile, long-stalled legislation to stiffen bankruptcy laws was resuscitated when Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., softened his opposition to a Senate provision prohibiting people who attack abortion clinics from declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying court-ordered fines.
Also, Senate Republicans dropped their insistence on having an extra seat at the bargaining table in melding separate House- and Senate-passed bills on terrorism insurance after Bush turned up the heat on Congress to get a bill to his desk. The action removed the primary hurdle that had blocked further action on the bill for months.
Bush and congressional GOP leaders also increased their efforts to move legislation to establish a new Department of Homeland Security. The House raced to finish its version on Friday, while Bush lobbied the Senate to adopt one more to his liking.
With the House ready to begin its summer recess and the Senate ready to take off next week, the flurry of last-minute legislative activity was not unusual. But there was a special sense of urgency this time, particularly among Republicans. Democrats have repeatedly criticized Bush and his congressional allies for their handling of corporate scandals and accused them of ignoring the economy.
"The Bush White House woke up and realized that they were in danger, that Republicans were in danger of losing both houses of Congress in November," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "So they put pressure on Republicans to drop their opposition to the corporate responsibility legislation and to get moving on homeland security."
Fleischer said political panic played no role in the rush of legislation. "I think you've seen, in both parties, some healthy give and take this week," he said.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said economic uncertainty contributed to the pressure to act quickly. On the trade bill, in particular, he said, "We need to show we're involved in the world and that's going to help the economy."