Bush attempts big leap from sales to delivery

His speech tonight will review priorities - but only the budget shows how he'll do it.

After six relatively successful weeks of settling in, George W. Bush now faces a new president's traditional first challenge: the switch from presenting an agenda to implementation.

With tonight's speech to a joint session of Congress, and tomorrow's release of his budget, President Bush finally begins detailing how his priorities - spending restraint, tax cuts, military reform, and others - fit together. Hard numbers will replace leaks and speculation, and with them will inevitably come more concerted political counterattack.

Awakened adversaries won't be Mr. Bush's only problem. It is at this point that presidents begin to deal with irritated friends - with one likely example, in Bush's case, being businesses that aren't getting tax breaks they covet.

"I think things change significantly [this] week, and I think it's predictable that once a budget formally arrives on Capitol Hill, the honeymoon, to the extent there was one, ends," says Gary Bauer, a former GOP presidential candidate. But a real honeymoon it's been. Bush has belied expectations of controversy, say analysts, by keeping his agenda simple and moving fast.

The administration's preset game plan has rolled along with few setbacks. The "if it's Week 3 today's subject must be taxes" approach has kept Bush officials focused and, for the most part, successfully shaped news coverage of the new White House's first days.

The continuing fireworks display that is ex-President Clinton has preempted much attention that would have otherwise fallen on George W. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, from Bush's point of view, is open to debate. But so far the nation's new chief executive has at least successfully sidestepped most attempts to draw him into commenting on Clinton controversies. In public, he has kept up a steady, if occasionally disjointed, patter about his own policies.

"The reason he's had a honeymoon is that before he was elected, he knew what he wanted to do, so he wasn't stumbling around," says Martin Anderson, a domestic policy adviser under President Ronald Reagan.

Now, the fine print

But this is the week the fine print appears. The submission of thousands of pages of budget documents marks a coming-of-age of sorts for any new president. Washington rhetoric toughens, and the political atmosphere becomes more charged.

The rollout is over, and for the US chief executive, the real game begins. "You can't control the agenda as well, and you can't just invest your time and capital exactly as you want.... You have to start managing in a much more complex situation," says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University.

Forces will begin to pull the administration in opposite directions. The Bush team has likely already had a taste of this in foreign policy, says Mr. Bauer.

Bush has been very critical of China for alleged help to Iraq in connecting Iraqi military anti-aircraft sites with fiber-optic cable. But many Republican-leaning corporate executives here in the US have a vested interest in continued dealing with the huge Chinese market. "I guarantee you they've already heard from the business community to tone it down," says Bauer.

For the Bush team, there's an extra dimension that makes its first budget rollout even more important: This is the first plan in many years that won't be declared "dead on arrival" after it thuds down on the Capitol doorstep.

Unlike budgets submitted by Mr. Clinton after the 1995 GOP takeover in Congress, the Bush blueprint is likely to be taken seriously by lawmakers with a partisan interest in its success.

Whether the budget process will run more smoothly remains to be seen. The president has already indicated that he wants to reduce the rate of growth in the discretionary side of the federal budget - that which does not deal with Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlements - to about 4 percent. Because the biggest part of such spending, the military, is slated for a 5 percent increase, some popular programs are sure to be squeezed.

Throwing money like confetti

In recent years Republican-led Congresses have appeared almost as amendable to spending increases as Democratic ones used to be, notes Brookings Institution analyst Bill Frenzel, himself a former GOP congressman from Minnesota. They'd fight Clinton all year - and then sit down in November and throw dollars around like confetti, or nonhanging chads.

"In the past, Clinton and the Republicans simply bribed each other. This president is going to look for more discipline in the budget," says Mr. Frenzel.

The Bush administration's ability to work with its own party in Congress will be perhaps the single largest determinant of its success. Without Republicans behind him, his tax cut, education spending, and other agenda items have little likelihood of passage.

But the key to the program's fate could be Democratic senators. The House contains enough conservative Democrats for the Bush team to envision somewhat easy passage of its agenda. The knife-edge-balanced Senate is another matter. "The [Bush] charm offensive has worked so far. Now where you have to really work is to get a handful of Democrats behind you in the Senate," says GOP consultant Scott Reed.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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