Bush Consolidating His Political Power

NEW YORK -- U.S. President George W. Bush has created one of the most powerful White Houses in at least a generation, prominent Democrats and Republicans say, reshaping the Washington political equation in a way that provides him both considerable opportunity and peril in the year ahead.

With the all-but-certain rise of his close ally, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, as Republican leader, the president has consolidated what even Democrats say is a stunning degree of authority in the White House at the halfway point of his four-year term.

The perception that Bush and his chief political counsel, Karl Rove, orchestrated a coup in the Senate -- notwithstanding the official White House denials that it had anything to do with Senator Trent Lott's decision on Friday to give up his leadership post -- has only enhanced what veteran political strategists say is the political potency of the White House.

"This White House is very, very strong," said William Bennett, a prominent conservative who pressed for Lott's removal. "There's now a unified theory of the White House in this town: It is strong, it is competent, it's all going in the same direction, and it doesn't leak."

Robert Strauss, the former Democratic chairman and adviser to presidents, including President Lyndon Johnson, said: "George Bush and several talented people around him have made the White House a power center in ways that I haven't seen in a long, long time -- all the way back to Lyndon Johnson. That is a big statement."

Republicans and Democrats said the power shift, coming as the Republican Party was struggling to contain damage created by the fight over Lott, could provide some important political benefits to this president as he moved into his re-election campaign next year.

Most significant, with Bush's allies in place on Capitol Hill, and memories strong of the decisive role Bush played in electing a Republican Congress, they said that the president was very likely to enjoy more influence over what Congress does -- or does not do -- than any president since Johnson.

For now, though, the abrupt leadership change in the Senate will make it much harder for Republicans to quickly enact their ambitious agenda when Congress returns next month, Republican and Democratic officials said.

Several Republican officials argued that what their party accomplishes in Congress next year will be critical to offsetting lingering damage from the Lott fracas. They said the party was likely to push domestic and other initiatives that were specifically designed to enhance its standing with black voters -- and, more significantly, moderate white voters, who are central to Bush's re-election and who, White House officials say, might be chased away by the perception that their party was hostile to civil rights.

"The future of the party is defined by the president and the policies that he proposes and by the actions that he takes," a senior White House official said Saturday. "The president will now have two years to focus on the future, and his message will drown out lingering memories of this episode. The party is defined by its standard-bearer, not by events that swirl around somebody else who may be important to the party but is not the standard-bearer.''

Still, a number of officials and historians warned that there are inevitable risks to the dominant position Bush and Rove now enjoy in Washington. History is filled with presidents who played too grand a hand in the flush of victory, and paid a price for it. One notable example is the congressional rebuff to Franklin D. Roosevelt when he tried to pack the Supreme Court with his allies after he won 46 of the 48 states in 1936.

Beyond that, the perception that Bush now has a friend in the Senate could complicate his dealings with the new Congress because of the historical assertion of independence by members of the Senate. For all the talk of a new cooperative relationship in a government now completely ruled by Republicans, it might be in Frist's interest to defy this White House in some very public way to ward off the perception that he is its puppet, several Democrats said.

Before he announced his decision, Lott, of Mississippi, made no secret of his displeasure at what he suggested was a campaign of White House leaks intended to discredit him. As a result, Lott and his conservative friends in the Senate might be less than cooperative with this administration. As it is, the Republicans enjoy a majority of only one in the Senate -- enough to win a straight-out vote, which is rarely the way Senate decisions are made.

"It certainly appears that he's got more control over Congress,'' Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, said of Bush. "But every member of Congress understands that the president doesn't have a vote on the Hill. Being independent from the president is both mandated by the Constitution -- and often mandated by your pollster."