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Bush, Democrats squaring off on host of issues

Sunday, September 02, 2001

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As Washington goes back to work this week, there is little talk of "working together" or "bipartisanship" as President Bush and Congress prepare to square off on one quarrel after another.

Bush and the Democratic leadership disagree down the line on issues from spending to new education rules to a patients' bill of rights, trade, oil and gas drilling in the Alaskan Natural Wildlife Refuge and using tax dollars to assist faith-based social services. There will also be confirmation fights over hundreds of presidential nominees.

After Democrats signaled that they would attack Bush's tax cut as the root cause of the non-Social Security surplus' disappearance, Bush said he welcomed the confrontation. "I look forward to hearing the debate," he said during a news conference last week while still vacationing in Texas. He imagined his opponents arguing: "Mr. President, I think you're wrong; we should raise taxes on the people, particularly after they just got their $600 [rebate] check."

But the president also suggested he would be launching a new campaign casting himself as "the outsider" against the Washington political establishment, as he hopes to induce Congress to do what he wants.

Bush said that in Crawford, Texas, where he spent most of his 26-day vacation, people side with him, not the Democrats. He said most people are interested in their families, whether it's going to rain, the price of fuel, insurance rates. They are "not worried about the partisan squabbling that has kind of sullied the Washington scene at times," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., says "you don't have to look hard to find potential collisions" between Congress and the White House. He accused Bush of being unrealistic about funding his tax cut as well as his education reforms and defense spending plans.

When Daschle laid out his Senate agenda, he listed education; the 13 appropriations bills to fund the $2 trillion cost of government; funding Medicare and Social Security through the baby-boomer era, energy policy; stem-cell research; prescription drug benefits; campaign finance reforms and a higher minimum wage. But the Democratic leader has major disagreements with the White House on every one of those issues.

While in Texas, Bush regularly assembled his political team to craft the administration's autumn political strategy. Concerned about polls that are starting to blame Bush for the shrinking surplus and eager to change an emerging perception of many Americans that Bush is primarily a tax-cutting conservative, the White House hopes to re-introduce him as caring and compassionate.

A consistent effort was made in August to broadcast cheerful pictures of the president with children, with minorities, showing off his ranch, golfing, watching Little Leaguers -- relaxed and wearing jeans.

Bush gets higher marks from the public than Congress. A Gallup poll in August found that 56 percent of respondents nationally approved of Bush's first six months on the job, compared with only 47 percent expressing approval of Congress.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer says Bush's style -- soothing, schmoozing and marked by charm and reasonableness -- worked to his advantage in winning passage of a $1.35 trillion tax cut. And it will work again, Fleischer contended, to win approval of his education reform bill, despite increasing opposition of some education groups and polls showing that 57 percent of Americans say Bush's standardized testing plan is not the best measure of a child's school performance.

After Bush's first prime-time TV speech to the nation Aug. 9, announcing that he would approve limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, public approval of his controversial decision -- saluted neither by liberals nor by conservatives -- climbed to 55 percent.

Bush's top aides admit that they are forging much of their strategy from former President Ronald Reagan's playbook. He liked to make trips out of Washington, which Bush has done this past month in his "Home to the Heartland" tours of states he needs to win re-election in 2004.

Everywhere he has gone, Bush has repeated his message of continuing tax cuts, instituting more standardized tests in education, limiting patients' rights to sue HMOs, providing more access to prescription drugs and permitting more exploration for oil and natural gas on public lands.

While polls show public approval for Bush's plan to develop missile defense technology, many are leery of his proposed defense spending increases. The president has said he wants to "provide the largest increase in military spending since Ronald Reagan was the president."

A majority of poll respondents express concern that the possible end of the budget surplus will mean Bush won't be able to keep his promises to cut taxes, balance the budget and still increase defense spending -- exactly what Reagan promised. The Reagan years were a period of economic expansion, but Reagan also presided over eight years when the national debt more than doubled, to $2.3 trillion.

Bush said he decided in the past month that he'd have his best shot at getting Congress to do his bidding if he were to do more traveling "and speaking about my agenda and the values behind it."

But he's still solidifying that agenda. For example, a few weeks ago he proposed offering legal residency to some illegal Mexican immigrants. Polling indicates that 49 percent of Americans oppose that idea, while only 43 percent favor it. Lately, Bush hasn't said much more about the proposal.

Presaging the battle over the budget, Bush in recent days has argued that a large surplus is not a good thing because it amounts to government hoarding of money earned by taxpayers and encourages Congress to spend it. One of the most rancorous arguments this fall will be whether to spend at least $9 billion in Social Security revenues to pay for operating the government. In the past, both Congress and Bush have pledged they would not do that, even though it would have no impact on current benefits.

"He promised not to spend the Medicare Trust Fund; last week, his Office of Management and Budget reported that he has," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said. "He promised not to spend the Social Security Trust Fund; despite budget gimmicks, the Congressional Budget Office [reports] that $9 billion will disappear from the Social Security surplus."



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