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The Nation | Ronald Brownstein / WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

This Political Buddy Movie Promises to Have a Few Plot Twists

October 27, 2003|Ronald Brownstein

When President Bush and California Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger met this month, they spent so much time talking up their friendship that they seemed to be auditioning for a political buddy movie. It's likely to be all smiles again this week when Schwarzenegger sweeps through Washington for meetings with top administration officials and Republican leaders in Congress.

With the state facing so many problems, Schwarzenegger needs every bit of help he can squeeze out of Bush. And the White House needs Schwarzenegger to succeed in office if Bush is to have any chance of seriously contesting California in 2004. So if the administration is in a position to expedite a payment or interpret a federal rule in a way that helps California, the state is more likely to get the benefit of the doubt now than under Democrat Gray Davis.

But on the biggest issues, Schwarzenegger and Bush may have more trouble linking arms. During his campaign, Schwarzenegger took positions on a long list of topics with federal implications. On many, if not most, of them, he expressed views that placed him much closer to the Democratic presidential candidates than to Bush.

On some major questions, Schwarzenegger and Bush align. Schwarzenegger shares Bush's desire to restrict liability lawsuits aimed at business. Both want to center educational reform on a tough testing regimen for students. Both are leery of new taxes.

But, inevitably, Schwarzenegger's top priority in Washington has to be federal help to close the state's budget deficit. Bush has consistently resisted large-scale federal assistance to the states.

This year, Bush reluctantly accepted a temporary $20-billion state aid package as the price of winning the last two Senate votes for his tax cut plan. But Bush has shown no interest in expanding or extending that aid. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential contenders such as retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean are promoting plans to funnel $40 billion or more to the cash-starved states over the next two years.

On health care there's a similar convergence. Schwarzenegger said he wanted to reduce the state's huge number of uninsured by expanding the Children's Health Insurance Program, a state-federal partnership. Bush hasn't proposed any funding increase for the program. But Democratic contenders such as Dean and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina want to provide enough federal money to significantly broaden eligibility for CHIP without requiring states to contribute any more dollars.

One of Schwarzenegger's top educational priorities is expanding after-school programs, an idea Democrats favor too. Bush, though, this year proposed cutting federal assistance for such programs by 40%.

With little attention, candidate Schwarzenegger also endorsed a "grand bargain" on immigration that would allow illegal immigrants now in the U.S. to work toward citizenship and would establish a guest-worker program to regulate the flow of future migrants.

All of the Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed that concept (albeit with provisions more favorable for illegal immigrants than the proposal Schwarzenegger embraced). But although Bush recently agreed to resume negotiations with Mexico on immigration, he's been leery of the grand bargain since conservatives strafed his first trial balloon on the subject two years ago.

On energy and the environment, the pattern is even more dramatic. Schwarzenegger says he wants to require utilities to produce 20% of California's electricity from renewable sources like solar energy by 2010, and 33% by 2020.

Meeting that goal would be easier if Washington required utilities nationwide to increase their reliance on renewable energy. That would enlarge the market for renewables, accelerating technological breakthroughs. Democratic presidential hopefuls such as Dean, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts support such a federal standard; Bush opposes it.

Schwarzenegger also said he would defend in court the law Davis signed last year requiring cars to reduce the emissions associated with global warming -- a mandate automakers could probably meet only by significantly improving mileage. In a related case, the Bush administration has already signaled it might challenge that law as an infringement on Washington's authority to set fuel economy standards.

Similarly, Schwarzenegger indicated he wanted to renegotiate the expensive long-term electricity contracts Davis signed with utilities during the state's energy crisis. But last June, two Bush appointees on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said the contracts could stand.

On all of those fronts, the Democratic candidates would seem likely to appoint officials more open to the state's arguments.

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