- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2001

NEWS ANALYSIS

President Bush is likely to get most of his tax cut, defense, education and health care agenda through Congress this year with the help of Democratic support, political and policy analysts said yesterday.
Despite the conventional wisdom that the president's legislative proposals are going to run into strong opposition because of the nearly dead-even split between the Republicans and Democrats in Congress, a number of factors appears to be improving the prospects of his reform agenda. Even veteran strategists, who did not have high expectations for Mr. Bush's agenda a month or so ago, now say they have changed their minds.
"I think people are going to be surprised to see how well he does," said Paul Weyrich, the social conservative strategist who maintains close ties to Mr. Bush's advisers. "He's going to end up splitting the Democrats."
Indeed, a big factor in Mr. Bush's favor is that both he and Vice President Richard B. Cheney have already begun reaching out to key conservative-to-moderate Democrats who agree with him on several policy issues, forging early alliances to help him in the legislative battles to come.
Senate Democrats who are expected to join forces with the Bush White House on legislative initiatives include Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana, a leader in his party on Medicare reform and health care issues, and Zell Miller of Georgia, a former governor who supports Mr. Bush's ideas on education and tax cuts.
Another factor helping Mr. Bush is the Republican Party's unity over his agenda, in contrast to growing divisions between the Democrats' liberal and centrist wings. The centrists, represented by the Blue Dog Democrats in the House and the Democratic Leadership Council, say Mr. Gore leaned too far to the left in his campaign and want to work with Mr. Bush to fashion a bipartisan legislative record that they can run on in the 2002 midterm elections.
"The assumption has been that it will be the Republicans who will be split, and the Democrats will be united in opposition. But I think the Republicans are united and the Democrats will be split," Mr. Weyrich said.
"There is a centrist wing among the Democrats and a group of Democrats who are up for election next year" who will join Mr. Bush on Medicare reform, health care, education, defense and tax cuts to counter the economy's decline, he said. "And you are going to see evidence of this very soon."
Nowhere is this shift more visible than in the debate over tax cuts.
Growing tax surpluses and fear of a slowing economy that could worsen in the months to come seem to be building bipartisan support for a much larger tax-cut package than even the Democrats supported late last year. And if the economic numbers continue to worsen, congressional analysts say Mr. Bush will probably get most of what he wants in his $1.3 trillion tax-cut package.
There is also wide agreement on both sides of the political aisle that Mr. Bush is going to get much of what he is seeking in increased defense spending to boost military readiness and accelerate development and deployment of an antimissile system. There was very little disagreement between Mr. Bush and the Democrats in the campaign on defense buildup, so a substantial budget increase for the Pentagon now seems be a sure thing.
There is also a basis for bipartisan agreement in two areas of social welfare policy that Mr. Bush made a central part of his campaign: reforming Medicare to include access to prescription drug benefits and overhauling federal education spending to raise standards, require more testing and give parents a way to escape failing schools through vouchers.
On Medicare reforms, the president and his advisers have already indicated their support for a market-oriented plan authored by Mr. Breaux that President Clinton killed two years ago. Mr. Bush wanted Mr. Breaux in his Cabinet, but the senator turned him down, though not before exchanging assurances that the two of them would work together to save Medicare from insolvency and offer access to prescription assistance to the elderly.
"We'll have to do some negotiating, but I think the chances are good for a compromise. I see the Republicans passing the Breaux plan," said John Goodman, a Bush adviser on health care issues who heads the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas.
"With the Senate split 50-50, a guy like Breaux is very important. He is going to bring over some Democrats. At the same time, you have Republicans pushing to do something on an issue that the Democrats say they care most about," Mr. Goodman said. There also appears to be bipartisan support for Mr. Bush's refundable tax-credit plan to help the uninsured buy health insurance, an idea that has strong backing from Republican leaders but also Democrats like Sens. Breaux, Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.
The idea also has bipartisan support in the House, where Ways and Means Committee Chairman William M. Thomas of California is a chief backer.
In the presidential campaign, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore supported the idea of giving a family of four a health insurance credit on taxes owed. Because it is refundable, low-income families who owe no taxes would get a check from the government.
"There's a real opportunity here to take this issue away from the Democrats. This would be a major breakthrough and provide protection to millions of families, and the likelihood is that it will pass," Mr. Goodman said.
With education reform consistently running at the top of every poll as the No. 1 issue in the country, Mr. Bush starts out with strong support for his plan to change the way federal funding is spent. And here, too, he has won unexpected support from some key Democrats for his proposals.
Sen. Miller, a conservative Democrat, told Mr. Bush at a recent meeting on education policy that he was wholeheartedly behind his plan, according to Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political strategist.
"I'm for your plan, every bit of your plan," the senator told Mr. Bush.
"We're going to get a lot of Zell Millers on our side on education," Mr. Rove said.
It is less certain whether Mr. Bush will get the school-choice vouchers that he has talked about giving parents whose children are in failing schools. But there is strong bipartisan support for the other features of his plan, especially its emphasis on early education in the Head Start program for preschoolers.
Congressional Republican leaders say that Mr. Bush's education bill will be given high priority when Congress gets back to business next month.
"It is hard to think of another issue, outside defense, where there will be more across-the-aisle support than on education," said a House Republican official.
But of all the major pieces of legislation that Mr. Bush will send to the Congress in the months to come, his advisers say that his tax-cut proposals are the centerpiece of his agenda and will be pivotal to the success of his presidency.
Throughout the 2000 election campaign, Democrats denounced Mr. Bush's $1.3 trillion tax-cut plan, including an across-the-board income tax cut, arguing that they were much too costly and largely benefited the rich.
But Democratic leaders have changed their tune on tax cuts over the past several weeks because of new estimates pushing the budget surplus up to nearly $6 trillion over 10 years, the threat of a recession if the economy continues to weaken and polls showing growing support for tax reduction.
House Democrat leader Richard Gephardt, worried about voter exit polls showing that Mr. Gore fared poorly among middle-class, suburban voters who are part of the growing investor class, now says Democrats are open to "a much bigger tax cut."
Mr. Gephardt is also getting pressure from his party's 40-member Blue Dog Coalition, which wants Democratic leaders to abandon their opposition to significant tax cuts.
"Using a portion of the projected surplus for tax relief is sound policy that many on both sides of the aisle have embraced," Blue Dog leaders said last week in a memorandum to Democrats in Congress.
"All of us want to do everything possible to maintain a strong and growing economy. Tax relief, properly structured and timed, can be part of the strategy to achieve that goal," the Blue Dog memo said.
Meanwhile, it appears that public opinion, which once favored paying off the national debt over tax cuts, now supports Mr. Bush's position that the country can do both. A national survey conducted by independent pollster John Zogby last week found that likely voters support Mr. Bush's tax plan by 53 percent to 34 percent.
Of all of Mr. Bush's major campaign proposals, his ambitious plan to reform and save Social Security may be the least likely to receive any congressional action this year.
With so many other Bush proposals expected to be placed on Congress' plate, some of his advisers privately voice doubt that there will be time to take any action this year on his plan to let workers put a part of their Social Security payroll taxes into their own retirement investment fund.
"There's some talk that it may be pushed off until next year while a blue-ribbon commission studies the issue," Mr. Goodman said.


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