- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2001

President Bush and Congress resume work this week on the rest of this year's legislative agenda, with political fights looming over the budget, oil, defense spending, education and the patients' bill of rights.

The conventional wisdom is that little, if anything, beyond routine appropriations bills, is going to get done in the fall session. Both parties are positioning themselves for the 2002 midterm elections, and that kind of political environment usually produces legislative stalemate. But I think the conventional wisdom will be proven wrong for a number of reasons.

When the Democrats, with the help of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' defection from the GOP, took over the Senate, the pundits were predicting that Mr. Bush's agenda was doomed or would have to be considerably watered down.

But with his sweeping 10-year tax-cut plan behind him, Mr. Bush has proven to be a far more cunning legislative tactician than his adversaries had expected. He has courted and won over Democrats on key bills. He has built an unholy alliance with big labor on legislation that will produce jobs. And he is skillfully using the Republican House to force compromises with the Democratic Senate.

Take Mr. Bush's energy plan. Critics said it would never see the light of day, because of its proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But Mr. Bush reached out for support from Democratic oil state senators like Mary Landrieu and John Breaux of Louisiana, and from the Teamsters and other labor unions, who see the bill as a major job producer for their rank and file.

Mr. Bush's plan, including ANWR drilling, has passed the House. A recent vote count in the Senate shows the president has just enough votes to get his plan through the Energy Committee and to the floor.

Mrs. Landrieu, a member of that committee, has indicated she will support Mr. Bush's plan, setting up a Senate vote that the president should win narrowly, unless Democratic Leader Tom Daschle decides to block action on the bill or a filibuster (which requires 60 votes to end) is used to kill it.

Meantime, Mr. Bush's education-reform bill has passed both houses of Congress, and a compromise version will likely pass this month. The only sticking point is money. My White House sources tell me that both sides "are close to an agreement."

That is not the case in the fight over the patients' bill of rights. Most Democrats want the Senate version, which sets very high liability awards that trial lawyers can win if they sue HMOs and other health-care providers. Mr. Bush is backing the House bill, which contains most of the Senate bill's patient mandates but cuts back on the lawsuits.

The White House thinks the Democrats are more interested in an election issue than working out a compromise. But the patients' bill of rights is so popular with voters, both sides may be willing to cut a deal. Rate this one a tossup.

That leaves the 13 appropriations bills to fund the government for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The White House is trying to keep spending increases down to about 5 percent or so, though that figure has probably already been breached.

Democrats are demanding more spending for social welfare programs, but Mr. Bush has largely blunted that issue by seeking much more money for medical research, and moderately more for education, Medicare, veterans and defense.

It is hard to see how the Democrats can get very far with their demands for higher spending after having made a big issue of the government's vanishing general fund surplus. And there seems to be confusion in their ranks on how to play the issue.

House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt has suggested cutting more deeply into the defense budget, but he does not have full support for that position in his caucus. "That would take our party back to the days of McGovern and Mondale," a House Democratic staffer told me.

Budget battles have become so routine in Congress, they may no longer have the political firepower they once had. Moreover, Mr. Bush enters this fray with most of the spending bills at or near the targets that White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels can accept.

I do not see a budgetary train wreck later this year. Both sides will likely agree to a continuing resolution to keep spending going at current levels for those bills that have not been passed by Oct. 1. Government shutdowns are not popular even though many programs would never be missed and presidents always have the upper hand in these fights.

There will be other skirmishes. A minimum wage increase is not in the cards in a weak economy. There are not enough House votes for the fast-track trade authorization bill that Mr. Bush wants. And his faith-based grant proposal, which has passed the House, appears stalled for now in the Senate.

But the president should end the year with a pretty good legislative batting average. You don't have to get all of what you want in the first year to be a successful president, just the big ones. And it looks like Mr. Bush is on course to do just that.


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