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THE NATION

Bush Shifts Gears in Policy Drive

The president is doing less arm-twisting in Congress on a drug plan and other agenda items.

September 26, 2003|Edwin Chen and Vicki Kemper | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush says he wants Congress to deliver prescription drug coverage for older Americans. And a national energy policy. And limits on medical malpractice awards.

Yet as the 2003 congressional session enters its final stages, he has all but sidelined himself, offering words of encouragement but leaving lawmakers to their own devices.

On Thursday, for example, he invited congressional negotiators to the White House and exhorted them to get a Medicare prescription drug bill to his desk by November. But he twisted no arms, nor did he address the measure's contentious issues.

With no discernible progress on the stalled legislation, many lawmakers emerged from the meeting to warn that prescription drug coverage for seniors was doomed without more vigorous presidential involvement.

"The president's level of intensity has to be greater," said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), adding that time was running out. "I pushed him, and told him that we're close to the make-or-break point," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) assured reporters of Bush's "commitment to see this bill through." But he acknowledged that the president had also "made it clear that this is the responsibility of the United States Congress."

Bush's approach to the Medicare debate contrasts sharply with the pressure he applied to lawmakers to pass education reform and massive tax cuts. He threw himself into the give-and-take on those bills, and aggressively campaigned for public support in the home states of Democratic senators whose votes he thought he could get for tax relief.

The president's more distant stance toward the Medicare negotiations and other issues Congress has yet to resolve appears to reflect his strategy of claiming victory on what seems legislatively possible and cutting his losses elsewhere.

But some analysts say it also underscores Bush's dwindling ability to influence Congress -- especially as another campaign cycle looms -- as his job-approval ratings and public support for the Iraq war are falling.

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released this week found that Bush's' job approval rating had fallen to 50%, from 71% in March. And a new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that a growing percentage of Americans -- 51% -- believe that Bush should cede some military control in Iraq to the United Nations, a view the president does not share. Moreover, the Pew poll found that 59% oppose his spending request for $87 billion more to pay for military and reconstruction costs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The new polls also have increased the hopes of Democrats that they can defeat Bush in next year's election. The Pew survey, for instance, found Bush holding a statistically insignificant lead, 45% to 43%, over an unnamed Democrat opponent.

At the White House, Press Secretary Scott McClellan disputed the notion that Bush was not working all-out to press for prescription drug coverage through Medicare -- or for a new national energy plan or for medical liability reform. McClellan noted that the president mentions these goals in nearly every stump speech.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson added that Bush was "absolutely passionate" about passage of a prescription drug benefit and that "he's going to stay involved." He may convene additional White House sessions on the matter, Thompson said.

But so far, Bush has not barnstormed the country to highlight the issue, as he did during congressional debates on his tax cut proposals in 2001 and earlier this year.

Bush told reporters at the end of his Thursday meeting with lawmakers that he was optimistic an agreement would be reached on a Medicare bill. "I believe people know it's possible to get it done," he said.

Democrats, however, did not share that optimism.

Given the "limited progress made this far," it is "necessary for members to dig even deeper" to reach agreement, Baucus said.

During the meeting, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said, he and other Democrats cited a litany of what they view as major obstacles to congressional action, such as whether to require states to continue providing prescription drugs to the poorest seniors under Medicaid and whether to force Medicare to compete with private plans.

Notwithstanding the congressional desire for Bush to get more involved in the negotiations, there is no guarantee that such presidential action will ensure success, according to Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst.

"Even with a Republican Congress, Bush's influence is at a low ebb for his term," he said. "Much of a modern president's power is derived from his standing in the public opinion polls, and Bush is at 50% and falling."

Sabato also said that Bush has gone "to the congressional well many times in a very aggressive way over the past three years, and there are limits, even for a successful president."

In the end, Bush is likely to be more focused on "the two overriding obstacles to his reelection: the economy and Iraq," Sabato added.

While passage of the drug benefit or the energy plan might boost Bush's reelection prospects, neither measure is essential, Sabato said. "He can still campaign on those issues, attacking 'Democratic obstructionism' [for] preventing their passage," he said.

The 18 congressional negotiators with whom Bush met on Thursday are trying to resolve differences between Medicare bills passed by the House and Senate. But the gulf between House and Senate lawmakers appears to be widening rather than narrowing.

Signs of partisan tensions are also surfacing, with Democrats accusing Republicans of shutting them out of the negotiations.

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