Kenneth T. Walsh on the Presidency

By + More

Despite all the partisan divisions in Washington, cooler heads sometimes prevail. President Bush proved that last week when he signed a bill increasing federal aid to needy college students to a maximum of $5,400 annually, up from $4,310, by 2012. White House officials had threatened a veto of the measure as too costly. But when the bill passed both houses of Congress by vetoproof margins, Bush relented.

Not that this was a sign of broader reconciliation or consensus in the making. The House and Senate have also rolled up big majorities for the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program legislation to expand health coverage to more children. But White House aides say Bush will veto the SCHIP bill, which he says is too expensive and extends federal assistance to families that aren't truly needy. The veto probably will stick because the House seems to lack the votes to override it.

Stalemate. This will be the likely pattern until at least the election. And of course the parties will blame the deadlock on each other, intensifying the already negative political atmosphere.

The pattern of stalemate is also evident on federal spending issues. President Bush regularly chastises majority Democrats for failing to send him a single appropriations bill this fall. In blasting them for inefficiency and trying to maneuver him into accepting bills that cost too much, he is threatening even more vetoes. Congressional leaders have a ready-made option that has been used before—combining all 12 outstanding appropriations bills into one vast, final measure. But Bush is concerned that many wasteful projects will be larded onto the legislation and that the Democrats will wait until the very end of their congressional session to send it to him. Then he would have to choose between signing it or allowing some sort of government shutdown. Bush argues that the Democrats are actually preparing to raise taxes. "At a time when families are working hard to pay their mortgages or pay for their children going to college, now is not the time to be taking money out of their pocket," the president said last week. For their part, Democratic leaders say they are trying to take care of genuine needs that have gone unmet during the Bush presidency.

He's back. Maybe. John McCain is getting new life as a presidential candidate, especially among Washington strategists and pundits. He still lags badly in national polls for the GOP nomination behind Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. But McCain has been getting better media coverage lately as an underdog, settling comfortably into the role he played in 2000 when he won the New Hampshire primary (and then faded out of contention). In recent days, he has gone up a few points in New Hampshire and seems to be competitive there again. The Arizona senator, the GOP front-runner a year ago, is clearly benefiting from Republican dissatisfaction with the rest of the field. But his problems, according to former McCain strategists, remain serious: He has angered conservatives with his support for a "comprehensive" immigration bill and has alienated independents with his support for the Iraq war. And even though he is about to start running TV ads in New Hampshire, he has little money left in his campaign treasury. The negatives may be insurmountable.

PHOTO OP: 10:42 a.m., September 26, New York City
President Bush chats with children from Public School 76 after a speech at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, where he congratulated the New York City Department of Education for recently winning the Broad Prize for Urban Education. He also gave a progress report on the No Child Left Behind program and outlined his proposals to help strengthen it.