- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2002

The Middle East crisis and the war against terrorism are drawing attention away from the White House's domestic policy agenda, which remains mired in the Senate, Republican leadership officials said yesterday.
The two conflicts, especially the escalating Israeli-Palestinian war, are consuming increasing amounts of President Bush's time and energy and dominating news coverage, making it difficult for the White House to engage the public and lobby for its agenda.
"Issues and legislation are getting pushed aside because of what's going on in the Middle East and the war in Afghanistan. That's where the attention is focused right now," said a senior Senate Republican leadership official.
Action on Mr. Bush's core domestic agenda has virtually ground to a halt in the Senate.
Blocked by political gridlock are bills the administration considers crucial to the nation's economic well-being, such as the energy bill to permit oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, trade authorization to let Mr. Bush negotiate free-trade deals and defense appropriations bills.
Prospects for these and other administration legislation do not appear bright. A Senate Republican leadership aide said he does not expect any action this week as Congress returns from a two-week Easter/Passover recess.
The White House yesterday said the two wars have not sapped attention from Mr. Bush's national agenda.
"The president continues to focus on both," said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.
Mr. Bush was in Knoxville, Tenn., yesterday promoting his proposed Citizen Corps, a $230 million program to enlist Americans to assist in local law enforcement, emergencies and counterterrorism efforts. He later spoke to business and labor leaders here about his proposal to overhaul terrorism insurance. Both events were part of a series of speaking trips to promote his domestic agenda.
But the president's allies on Capitol Hill say that while Mr. Bush is on the road talking about the rest of his agenda, key initiatives remain bottled up in committee or in the Senate bills that need concentrated prodding from the White House but are not getting much public attention.
A typical example is the defense appropriations bill, including a supplemental, that Mr. Bush wants Congress to act on as soon as possible to replenish defense funding for the war on terrorism.
But instead of being put on a fast track, the legislation is being processed through the usual, painstakingly slow procedures that Congress applies to all other non-priority funding requests.
Another example is the budget resolution that sets spending guidelines for Congress. Senate Democrats have drawn up a budget bill but have not made plans to bring it up for a vote.
"There is a rumor floating around here that Senate Democrats may not bring up the budget resolution because [Majority Leader] Tom Daschle does not have the votes to pass one," a Republican official said yesterday.
"Ordinarily, this would be a front-and-center issue in Washington 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," the official said.

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