Setbacks pin 'lame duck' label on Bush

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The Independent US

Weary Republican senators and congressmen headed home this weekend for the Memorial Day recess, with the John Bolton nomination battle still undecided and one tantalising question on their minds: is the heyday of the party's Christian conservative right now over?

Weary Republican senators and congressmen headed home this weekend for the Memorial Day recess, with the John Bolton nomination battle still undecided and one tantalising question on their minds: is the heyday of the party's Christian conservative right now over?

Despite the successful mini-filibuster mounted by Democrats late last week, President Bush's little-loved choice to be the next US envoy to the United Nations will almost certainly be confirmed after Congress returns next week. But the bitter three-month battle, which has seen several moderate Republicans openly voice grave doubts about Mr Bolton, is one more sign of how on Capitol Hill, the right no longer has matters all its own way.

The clearest was last week's compromise, agreed by the "Gang of 14" moderate and independent-minded Republican and Democratic senators, to avoid a deva- stating showdown on judicial nominations that might have brought the august upper chamber to a standstill, all but paralysing government. The judicial truce may not last long. The deal, to prevent both Democratic filibusters and the Republican "nuclear option" to bar such delaying tactics, thus far applies only to a handful of federal judges. The stakes will be far higher when Mr Bush moves to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court - as he will have to this summer if, as expected, William Rehnquist, the 80-year-old Chief Justice who is suffering from cancer, resigns.

Suddenly, however, only seven months after his clear re-election victory, the writ of this most dependably conservative President no longer runs as it did. Mr Bush's plan to part-privatise social security, intended as the flagship reform of his second term, is virtually dead in the water. His approval rating, according in one poll, has slumped to a new low of 43 per cent. The dread term "lame duck" is already to be heard. Thanks to assertiveness by Republican moderates, the House of Representatives last week defied Mr Bush by voting to broaden stem cell research to unused embryos created by in vitro fertilisation. Almost certainly the President will be able to use his first-ever veto to quash the measure, should the Senate also approve it, but the point was made.

Meanwhile the waters of scandal lap ever higher at Tom DeLay, Republican majority leader in the House and the most powerful spokesman of the Christian right on Capitol Hill. Last week a Texas judge ruled that a group formed by Mr DeLay broke campaign finance rules, bringing new calls for a full investigation of the Congressman's controversial dealings with lobbyists in Washington.

In retrospect, the true watershed may have come three months ago, when Mr DeLay led the campaign for Congress to intervene to press the federal courts to have the brain-dead Florida woman Terri Schiavo put back on life support.

The effort was backed by both Mr Bush and Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader. Not only did the courts ignore their demands, however, rejecting every appeal to have Ms Schiavo's feeding tube re-inserted, but polls showed that seven out of 10 Americans, including a majority of Republican voters, believed Congress had overreached itself - in other words that the right had gone too far.

The fallout is already affecting the 2008 White House race. The squeaky-clean Mr Frist has long been planning a run, banking on support among social conservatives and Christian evangelicals. But his reputation has taken a major hit over the filibuster deal, effectively negotiated by subordinates over his head. "If he cannot effectively lead 55 Republican senators," thundered the Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire, home of the first primary, "how can he be trusted to lead the party and the country three years from now?"

In Republican presidential terms, the big winner of recent events has been John McCain, an architect of the "Gang of 14" deal and the Republican senator with the greatest cross-party appeal. Mr McCain ran in 2000. The odds that he will try again in 2008 are shortening by the week.

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