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With Party Parity, Bush Must Face Prospect of Trimming Grander Plans

President Bush may have to roll back--or abandon entirely--a series of prominent campaign promises: his plan to provide federally funded private school vouchers to low-income parents, his call for a fundamental overhaul of Medicare and his push to repeal the estate tax.

February 19, 2001|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

Since taking office, George W. Bush has been sure-footed and focused. He's avoided the early chaos and controversy that made the Clinton administration's first days look like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. He's courted legislators in both parties with frenetic verve, aggressively laid out his agenda and even managed to keep bankers' hours.

And yet the tenuous nature of his political situation is still settling in.

In the last few days, administration officials or congressional Republicans have signaled that Bush may have to roll back--or abandon entirely--a series of prominent campaign promises. Among them: his plan to provide federally funded private school vouchers to low-income parents, his call for a fundamental overhaul of Medicare and his push to repeal the estate tax.

That doesn't mean that Bush's agenda is running off the rails. He's still on track to win congressional approval of an education plan that largely follows his design and a much larger tax cut than seemed possible during the 2000 campaign. But it does show that, despite all the news stories about Bush cutting through Washington like a scythe, he's still bound by the limitations of his narrow victory and a Congress split almost in half between the parties. Bush already has demonstrated that he can tilt the policy debate in his direction. But with the country and Congress so closely divided, he can't always dictate results.

On education and Medicare, Bush faces a straightforward obstacle: For now, there isn't anything approaching majority support for some of his priorities.

Take school vouchers. In contrast to previous Republicans, Bush didn't make private school vouchers the centerpiece of his education agenda. But he did grant them a prominent position as the sharp edge of his accountability plan. He proposed that when schools fail to improve student performance for three years, federal funds should be diverted into vouchers that low-income parents could use to buy after-school tutoring or pay for tuition at a private school.

Conservatives love that idea because they believe increased competition from private schools will force the public schools to improve. As a political matter, there's only one problem with that proposition: The right has never been able to convince a majority of Congress, or voters, to agree. Every time a voucher plan has been placed on a ballot, it's been defeated by voters who consider it a threat to the public schools. In November, Michigan voters decisively rejected a voucher initiative almost identical to Bush's proposal.

The political situation in Congress is no different. In October 1999, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) offered a voucher plan that also was virtually identical to Bush's. It failed by a 91-vote margin, with 52 Republicans voting no. Current party loyalty might help Bush improve on that showing, but probably not enough to attract a majority. The Senate environment looks the same: near-monolithic Democratic opposition and widespread doubts among Republican moderates.

Which is why senior administration officials now are touting a compromise floated by Senate Democratic centrists. That plan would provide vouchers to parents who have children in failing schools that could be used for remedial services--but not for private school tuition. The plan would be funded with a new pot of money, not by diverting existing federal aid from the troubled schools. This approach wouldn't provide much of the competition that conservatives crave, but it may be the best Bush can do in a Congress without anything approaching a dependable conservative majority.

On Medicare, Bush's position is even more precarious. In the campaign, Bush proposed a fundamental overhaul of Medicare based on a plan introduced by Sens. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and John B. Breaux (D-La.).

Today, the vast majority of Medicare recipients receive care under an open-ended fee-for-service system: They go to the doctor and the government pays most of the bills. Breaux and Frist proposed that instead, Washington should provide senior citizens a fixed sum to purchase private insurance from a list of providers. Seniors could stay in the existing fee-for-service Medicare system, but under the version of the Breaux-Frist plan that Bush endorsed, those premiums could rise substantially. Indeed, though the sponsors would never publicly say so, those cost increases were designed to nudge seniors away from fee-for-service toward managed care in the hope of controlling Medicare's ever-increasing costs.

This approach has some intellectual merit; at least Breaux and Frist deserve credit for grappling with the prospect that rising Medicare (and Medicaid) costs will crowd out other worthwhile spending priorities as baby boomers age. But their blueprint has never attracted many other lawmakers. The two were unable to marshal enough support last year even to force a vote in the Senate Finance Committee.

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