- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2001

Two-and-a-half months into his presidency, George W. Bush seems to be doing pretty well. He is following his agenda, staying on message and softening the once-bitter tone in Washington.

At the same time, he has kept his Democratic adversaries largely off balance, blocked or reversed a number of Clinton administration policies, and has reached out to political constituencies who did not support him in the 2000 election.

Even the news media here seem to be gradually readjusting to a very different kind of president: a chief executive who lets his top Cabinet officials and aides carry out his policies and who does not need to be in the spotlight every minute. It´s a far cry from Bill Clinton, who had to be before the cameras nearly every day, even for relatively routine announcements.

Passing big, complicated agendas take time, but most of Mr. Bush´s agenda is on track and moving with unusual speed. The House has passed his across-the-board income-tax cuts, marriage-penalty relief, and a doubling of the $500-per-child family tax credit. Estate-tax repeal is due to be passed this week. The last three bills won strong bipartisan support.

The Senate, which moves at a slower pace because senators take much more time to say a lot less, will begin work on the tax-cut plan later this month. But Mr. Bush´s tax-rate cuts aren´t guaranteed approval by the upper chamber, which Republicans rule with a tenuous 50-plus-1 majority. There is, however, bipartisan support in the Senate for a retroactive $60 billion tax cut this year an appetizer to Mr. Bush´s $1.6 trillion main course.

Mr. Bush´s budget, which for the first time in years would slow the growth of spending to no more than 4 percent annually, has sped through the House and is being considered by the Senate this week.

Progress is being made on his education reform bill, which is receiving bipartisan support. Additional money will be forthcoming this year to help improve the morale and quality of life of our men and women in uniform.

Mr. Bush has managed to block or overturn many of the last-minute, middle-of-the-night executive orders Mr. Clinton signed in the final weeks and hours of his presidency. He has rescinded workplace ergonomics regulations that would have burdened businesses large and small with a lot of costly mandates. He ended the spare-no-expense order requiring union contracts for all federal building projects. He put some of the Environmental Protection Agency´s worst orders on hold or killed them altogether.

Behind the scenes, work is proceeding on a Medicare reform plan and the naming of a special bipartisan panel to study his proposal to create private Social Security retirement accounts.

And have you noticed how the tone of political rhetoric has changed in the capital? Gone are the almost daily political attacks from the White House. In their place, Mr. Bush has been meeting with and praising key House and Senate Democrats in order to build alliances for his agenda. He has met with black religious leaders and the Hispanic congressional caucus, and has found some common ground with them regarding his faith-based social-welfare initiatives.

A sign of the changing times: More than three dozen black business leaders have embraced Mr. Bush´s plan to repeal the estate tax, saying it would help close the wealth gap between blacks and whites.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders are struggling to find a coherent message. In January, they said tax cuts would endanger the economy. In February, they said Mr. Bush was talking down the economy, but they might support some targeted tax cuts. In March, they came out in favor of a one-time $60 billion tax rebate to stimulate the economy.

Polls show a majority of Americans support tax cuts to revitalize the sluggish economy, while the flimsy arguments the Democrats have made to block the Bush tax-cut plan have fallen apart one by one.

They say the tax cut is too big. But the Bush tax cuts represent barely 1 percent of the economy´s entire gross domestic product over the 10-year period during which they will be phased in.

They say it is unfair, but those in the lowest income brackets get the largest tax cuts as a percentage of their incomes.

Finally, they say that if the surpluses do not materialize in future years, the tax cuts will produce huge budget deficits that will hurt the economy. But Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, has the answer: a congressional midcourse review that would be written into the tax-cut bill. If the surpluses are coming at a lower rate than projected, the tax cuts would be phased in more slowly. If the surpluses are bigger than anticipated, the tax cuts would be accelerated. What could be fairer or more cautious than that?

Mr. Gramm´s provision will likely be enough to win over nervous Republicans, such as Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, and doubting Democrats, such as Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson. With a few other strategic compromises, the betting in this corner is that most of Mr. Bush´s tax cuts will pass the Senate next month by more than 55 votes.

There will no doubt be some unexpected twists and turns in the road ahead, but so far this is shaping up to be a productive first year in Bush´s presidency.

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