Bush, Congress Trade Barbs Over 100-Day Deadline

While both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue quibble, transportation and crime bills wait

ONE hundred days ago, President Bush singled out two quality-of-life issues that bother Americans most - traffic and crime. Then he challenged Congress to pass his crime and surface transportation bills by today. He never really expected it to happen.

When he acknowledged Wednesday night that his hundred-day deadline would pass without action on the legislation, he was ``disappointed,'' he said, but frankly ``not surprised.''

In the week of barb-trading between the White House and leaders of Congress over the 100-day deadline, both sides have made a similar case:

On the domestic concerns that bother Americans the most, the federal government - for better or worse - is not quick to respond these days.

The consensus view around here is that Bush's 100-day challenge, with its Rooseveltian overtones, was a device to deflect some of the heat the president takes for lacking a strong action agenda on domestic problems.

Further, it serves to ``focus some attention on the fact that the Congress doesn't really have an alternative agenda of its own,'' says Brookings Institution senior fellow Charles Jones.

But Congress had a similar message this week about the White House. Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine scoffed at the Bush deadline as ``arbitrary,'' ``political,'' and even a ``new low in political cynicism.'' He then challenged the president to present a comprehensive health-care plan by the 900th day of his term, which is about a month away.

The Bush White House is struggling mightily and without apparent success to develop an approach to health-care costs, one of the biggest issues on the political horizon.

Well over a year ago, the president directed Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan to draft a health-care proposal. White House aides expected it in time for the last State of the Union address in January. It has yet to surface.

``It's an issue that if we as Republicans don't seize some initiative on, the Democrats will get out in front,'' says Republican strategist and campaign consultant Vince Breglio.

The cost of health care, he says, ``bites at the backside of people in society from the underclass to the working class to well into the middle class.''

Although the issue has yet to be brought home to the public through a dramatic national event, says Mr. Breglio, ``you can see the temperature rising almost monthly around the country.''

Mr. Bush's challenge to Congress dates to March 6, when he addressed Congress in a triumphant speech at the end of the Gulf war. If the ground war for Kuwait could be won in 100 hours, he said, then surely Congress could pass crime and transportation bills in 100 days.

In a speech Wednesday, he heaped cheerful scorn on congressional foot-dragging. ``I thought 100 days was pretty reasonable,'' he said. ``I didn't ask them to deliver a hot pizza in less than 30 minutes.''

Americans, Bush said, ``don't understand the complications, the inaction, the bickering.''

The president's surface transportation bill would free about $105 billion of already-setaside funds over the next five years for urban mass transit, bridge repair, highways, and other transportation improvements. It reached the floor of the Senate this week, but in the House it is cooling its heels in a transportation subcommittee. Outside observers forecast it will remained bottled up until July recess.

The crime bill, which concerns only the roughly 3 percent of crime handled in the federal justice system, would expand use of the death penalty, allow greater use of improperly obtained evidence, and other toughening measures. The Senate is likely to begin debate on a version of the bill next week, and may add a waiting period for handgun purchases. The House has already passed a seven-day waiting period, but the White House crime bill is still undergoing scrutiny in Judiciary subcommittees.

That Bush could not inspire quicker action on either bill speaks to the lackluster domestic agendas on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, says Dr. Jones. Further, he adds, ``There is no real public demand for one.''

``The problem is not that people aren't concerned about these issues, but that they don't believe the government can do anything about it,'' says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

With the growing exception of the health-care issue, Breglio agrees: ``People's expectations for what the federal government is able to do are not very high.''

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