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NEWS ANALYSIS

Good Bush, Bad Bush: Democrats Feel Both--With Different Results

April 08, 2001|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — The iron fist or the velvet glove?

In the months ahead, a key question in Washington is which approach will shape President Bush's dealings with Congress, especially Democrats. In a stark juxtaposition, Bush applied both techniques last week--with emphatically different results.

On Friday, after adamantly refusing to negotiate with Democrats until the last minute, Bush suffered his first legislative reversal as the Senate approved a budget plan that sharply reduced his $1.6-trillion, 10-year tax cut.

However, just hours earlier, after exhaustive talks, the administration reached an agreement with both Senate Democrats and Republicans on sweeping reforms in federal education programs. With backers now arrayed from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the left to Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) on the right, that bill appears on track for bipartisan Senate approval later this month.

"The process we went through on education is exactly the way it ought to be; we've had good ongoing discussions, we're on the brink of a product . . . on which everyone can claim ownership," said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). "On the budget, it's been exactly the opposite. . . . You almost have to use different sides of the brain to explain it."

Why Bush pursued a harder line on the budget than the education bill isn't clear. One reason may be that he starts from a more centrist position on education than on the budget, making it easier to reach common ground with Democrats.

Another explanation may be that taxes are a greater priority to Bush's ideological base. And Bush--perhaps mindful of the difficulties his father, former President George Bush, faced with conservatives--has been extremely careful to avoid alienating his base.

The budget and tax fight also appeared to assume an outsize importance for the White House as a virtual rite of passage for Bush. Early on, White House strategists concluded that it was more important to demonstrate strength by passing a budget as close as possible to his blueprint than to make concessions that might bring over several Democrats to pass the bill comfortably in a Senate split 50-50 between the parties. The irony is that the desire to show strength led to the first sign of weakness: the vote shrinking the tax cut by 27%, to about $1.2 trillion.

One senior White House official argued that the contrast in deliberations on the budget and education bills arose not from the White House approach but from the Democratic response. The official said the bills evolved so differently because Democrats were willing to accept Bush's broad approach on education but not on taxes.

"Our approach was consistent throughout, which was, let us find common ground and work together," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous while discussing White House strategy.

Few Democrats accept that explanation. Even centrist Democrats willing to support a larger tax cut than the $900-billion plan that party leaders offered complained that the the Bush White House refused to negotiate revisions that might have allowed them to support the president's bill.

Indeed, Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), although viewed from the outset as a potential Democratic vote for the package, groused that, even in private, Bush simply repeated his public argument that his $1.6-trillion figure was "just right." Breaux also complained that the president spent more time trying to build public pressure on moderate Democrats through visits to their states than dickering with the lawmakers behind closed doors.

The senior White House official insisted the problem was that centrist Democrats did not give the administration a clear enough sense of what changes might bring their votes. "We have had an open attitude when people come forward with specifics," the official said. "But you could never get these guys to say, 'Here was my number and these are the guys who would come with me.' It was always, 'Give me a much lower number and maybe I'll vote for it.' "

Still, the administration was slow to negotiate with Democrats even after Breaux and other centrists proposed a $1.25-trillion tax cut early last week. Instead, it tried to reel in wavering Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.); only when those efforts failed did the White House engage in some last-minute discussions with Breaux. Ultimately, the administration was forced to accept a budget resolution with a $1.18-trillion tax cut--less than what Breaux had offered.

"The president could have gotten a substantial portion of what he's hoping for with bipartisan support, but he chose to make the $1.6-trillion figure almost a talisman," Bayh said.

Both Parties Conceded on Education Measure

On the education bill, the experience was utterly different. From the outset, White House policy aides Margaret LaMontagne and Sandy Kress negotiated intensely with both Democrats and Republicans over every aspect of the measure.

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