WASHINGTON – President Bush and congressional Democrats have dueled daily over Social Security (search), a national saga that has cost the president coveted political capital and left some Republicans more than a bit squeamish.
"It's the president who's setting the terms of judgment for Congress. He's the one who has chosen to make Social Security reform a centerpiece of his agenda," said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.
But while the Social Security debate rages, Republicans are quietly scoring victories on other Bush agenda items.
"The president gets everybody interested in it, engaged in it as it moves up the hit parade, probably now to the No. 1 domestic issue. In the meantime, we are moving right along here in Congress," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate majority whip.
Already, the president has signed the class-action reform (search) law, making it tougher for trial attorneys to file suits against businesses. The Senate has passed a bankruptcy bill (search) that gives credit card companies new powers to collect overdue debt. Congress is also about to approve oil drilling in Alaska's remote Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search).
Republicans also plan to move bills shielding gun manufacturers from lawsuits over criminal misuses of firearms, finish passage on a multibillion dollar highway construction bill (search) and fine-tune landmark welfare reform (search). All of the efforts are part of a strategy by Republicans to divide and conquer.
"You have at least a small group of Democrats in the Senate who actually would like to see more bipartisan cooperation to move what is essentially a GOP agenda," McConnell said.
One senior Senate Republican described Democratic focus on Social Security and recent GOP victories as "the legislative equivalent of three-card Monty."
But congressional scholars say Republicans aren't scoring big victories, merely winning minor skirmishes.
"After the election, I and many other analysts argued that there would be some low-hanging fruit for the Republicans to reap early in this legislative session, but that the major items on the president's agenda would be highly controversial and difficult to move," Mann said.
GOP efforts could affect the standstill over some judicial nominees. Democrats have vowed to block all legislation if Republicans change Senate rules to forbid judicial filibusters. That democratic threat may not hurt so badly if Republicans have already won most winnable battles.
"I think they moved to harvest some bills early in the session as a way of ensuring some achievements if things turn nasty as a result of strategies pursued on judicial confirmation. ... I'll tell you, we'll probably forget these early matters if both parties go to the mats after the nuclear option is taken," Mann said of the filibuster fight.
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Major Garrett.