WASHINGTON – Congress finished some perennial projects this year, like energy, highway and bankruptcy bills, but stumbled over or ignored some of President Bush's priorities.
"If it were an ordinary year, a traditional year, sort of a simple first year of a president's second term, you would have to say he had a pretty good year," said Stephen Hess, public affairs professor at George Washington University.
"If you want to look at what he tried to do and didn't do," Hess added, "that list could look pretty robust."
The president handed Congress an ambitious agenda for his fifth year in office. He asked lawmakers to revamp drastically Social Security, prevent his tax cuts from expiring, rewrite the nation's immigration laws and restrain government spending.
Bush's Social Security program, which included personal accounts for younger workers, faced united Democratic opposition and public skepticism. It quickly fell flat. Efforts to eliminate estate taxes and keep lower capital gains and dividend tax rates on the books struggled for support while moderate Republicans worried about federal budget deficits. Congress waited until the end of the year to engage in the immigration debate.
A year of work toward cutting government spending bore fruit and invigorated Republicans, both conservative and moderate. It led to an across-the-board spending cut — only veterans' programs were spared — and a $40 billion package of program reductions awaiting final action next year.
"With the passage of this deficit reduction act, including an across-the-board cut in federal spending, the 'Republican Revolution' is back," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who leads a group of House conservatives.
Many of Congress's achievements this year were more modest than the goals Bush set for lawmakers, said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
"They did a lot of tier-two issues that were important to certain constituencies but that, in and of themselves, were not of any great magnitude," Franc said. "It was not a year for, obviously, enactment or even action on tier-one issues."
The achievements included a popular highway bill that doled out billions in transportation projects across the country. A bankruptcy measure made it tougher to erase debt obligations. Energy legislation offered billions of dollars in tax subsidies to energy companies and fostered a wider mix of energy sources in future years.
Other measures dealt with gun manufacturers liability, class-action lawsuits, terrorism insurance and the threat of avian flu.
"If anything, this is sort of a tinkering Congress," said Forrest Maltzman, a political science professor at George Washington University.
It didn't help, Maltzman said, that the president lacked one of his powerful generals, Rep. Tom DeLay. The Texas Republican stepped aside from his duties as House majority leader when indicted on state charges of money laundering.
But, then, there were distractions. Two Supreme Court vacancies produced three nominees to fill the voids and three confirmations for the Senate to consider.
John Roberts became the nation's chief justice. Harriet Miers bowed out amid conservatives' complaints. The next nominee, Samuel Alito, faces tough Democratic opposition at confirmation hearings in January.
Hurricane Katrina tried to wipe the Gulf Coast off the map, and two hurricanes followed in her wake. Congress quickly got busy providing money and other assistance to clean up the mess and help communities rebuild. Among its last acts, Congress funneled $29 billion to hurricane recovery and reconstruction.
In some cases, Congress pushed back against presidential dictates, to the frustration of GOP leaders at times.
The Senate this week killed a bid to open an Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil exploration. Republicans bucked the president and enacted laws prohibiting the cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of anyone in U.S. custody anywhere in the world. Lawmakers extended the Bush administration's anti-terrorism law enforcement powers for a month, to resume a debate over civil liberties next year.
Bush intended to emphasize the positive. He planned bill-signings next week while he is at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, of a massive defense bill that includes the Katrina money and of the Patriot Act extension, said an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the president's schedule had not yet been announced.
Overall, the year was characterized by tough negotiations among Republicans when divisions surfaced in their ranks, as well as hardball tactics against Democrats who raised loud and frequent ethical questions about GOP governance, said David King, associate director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
With Republicans controlling the government by such a narrow majority, it's no surprise they're using "blunt force" to push their priorities through, King said.
"I think, if the Democrats were in power, you would see exactly the same thing," he said.