- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

President Bush has been trying to get his domestic agenda back on track in recent weeks, which isn't easy when everyone's attention is fixed on the Middle East conflict and the war against terrorism.

Try as he might, the two wars have largely wiped his election-year agenda off the radar screen, at least for the time being. D.C. is a town that finds it hard to concentrate on two or more things at a time. The wars are increasingly taking up more of Mr. Bush's schedule, meaning he has a lot less time to promote, lobby and build congressional and public support for an agenda crucial to America's national security and its economic well-being.

Even if there were no wars, the Democratic Senate would still be an impenetrable thicket of obstructionism. With them, the chamber has turned into an irresolute, soupy bog into which major pieces of Mr. Bush's agenda have been sinking out of sight.

That's why the president has been on the road lately, trying to revive the energy bill, trade authorization and terrorism insurance reform, among other things. But he's finding it hard to compete with the twin wars for the news media's attention. So are his allies on Capitol Hill.

"Issues and legislation are getting pushed aside because of what's going on in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. That's where the attention is focused right now," a frustrated Republican senator told me.

Mr. Bush's job-creating, energy independence bill supported by nearly a dozen major unions would permit oil drilling on a few thousand acres in the multimillion-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. However, it remains mired in the Senate. A Senate majority supports the bill, but Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, has upped the ante, insisting that Mr. Bush win 60 votes to break a Democratic-led filibuster against it.

This would be a major political battle that Mr. Bush would win, at least on points, if he had more time to devote to it.

Saddam Hussein's latest move to cut off Iraq's oil exports for a month in a bid to push oil prices up further to undermine U.S. economic security handed the White House a powerful national security argument against the anti-drilling Daschle Democrats.

To wit: America will continue to be vulnerable to this kind of energy extortion if we do not take steps now to build up our own resources. But that argument was not heard from the White House over the noise of war.

Other bills remain imprisoned in the Senate: trade authorization to let Mr. Bush freely negotiate tariff-flattening trade deals to boost U.S. manufacturing and agricultural exports; terrorism insurance that is vital to our economic security; dozens of judicial nominations that are trapped in the Judiciary Committee.

The Senate's holdup on the 2003 budget resolution is another manifestation of the gridlock that has imperiled much of the administration's election-year agenda. The House has passed its budget blueprint, but there are rumors that Mr. Daschle will not bring up the Senate's budget bill because he does not have the votes to pass it.

"Ordinarily, this would be a front-and-center issue about the Democrats mismanagement of the Senate. However, because of what's going on in the Middle East and the war in Afghanistan, it's more difficult to communicate that," a Senate Republican official said.

Perhaps the biggest victim in all this is much-needed legislation to finance the war on terrorism itself. The defense appropriations bill, and a supplemental, is languishing in the snails-pace legislative process used for nonpriority bills.

Mr. Bush has called for quick action on military funding, urging the Senate to put the bill on an expedited procedure. Budget requests to replenish and increase funding for the war on terrorism is critical to our national security and to the safety of our troops who are in harm's way. Mr. Daschle is treating this as if it were another appropriation for HUD or the Interior Department.

Unlike Mr. Bush's predecessor, who seemed to make virtually every announcement, no matter how marginal, Mr. Bush's management style is to delegate, freeing him to make the big decisions and do the heavy lifting when the bully pulpit is needed to pry important actions out of Congress.

Mr. Bush's involvement is certainly needed now more than ever, even though prospects for some of his agenda do not look bright. This is, after all, an election year, when both sides are making the case for their agenda and one of Mr. Bush's jobs is to make that case as powerfully as he can as the midterm campaigns get under way.

At least Mr. Bush has something going for him this year that the Democrats do not: an agenda, and a pretty good one at that.

Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's political director, is telling Democratic audiences: "I'll buy dinner for anybody who can say what the Democrats stand for. So far nobody's taken me up on it."


Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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