US House emerges from Senate's shadow

Two big issues move to the House: campaign finance and patients' rights.

Washington is about to do something it hasn't done all year - pay attention to the House of Representatives.

From the first hours of the Bush presidency, all eyes have been on the closely divided Senate, especially after control passed to Democrats last month. That's where the key battles of the new administration would be won or lost, experts said.

Republicans in the House were the highly disciplined foot soldiers of the new administration. They could be counted on - despite reservations - to line up behind the president on early initiatives such as the tax cut, the budget, and education.

But as the agenda shifts to the next tier of issues - and closer to 2002 elections - that support is no longer a given.

Some 70 House Republicans handed the president a big rebuff on his energy policy, after they rejected administration proposals for drilling in the Great Lakes and near Florida beaches earlier this month.

And party discipline faces an even stronger test, as the House takes up campaign finance and a patients' bill of rights.

These are not top White House issues - far from it. President Bush has threatened to veto the patients' bill of rights, as it came out of the Senate.

And he has been consistently cool to the idea of a ban on contributions to federal campaigns from corporations or unions - a cornerstone of campaign-finance reform as passed by the Senate.

In a speech planned for today, the president will remind the nation of his own priorities - getting an education bill through Congress, reforming the nation's energy strategy, and improving access to federal resources for faith-based charities.

Bush's tough sell

But analysts say those priorities will be a hard sell. Public opinion is running strongly in favor of reforms in campaign laws and improvements in the nation's managed care system. And with the Democratic takeover in the Senate, Democrats and independent Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, are now able to get their issues on the agenda.

"The White House doesn't have the upper hand politically in terms of issue popularity. They had the tax cut. Beyond that, it's difficult to see an issue on which they have political momentum. And on issues like drilling, members are beginning to vote their districts," says Marshall Wittmann, a congressional analyst with the Hudson Institute in Washington.

"It seems at this moment, the Democrats are driving the congressional agenda in both chambers," he adds.

Early on, Republicans who favored moving ahead on campaign-finance reform and patients' rights were willing to postpone these priorities, to let the new president get his administration off to a good start.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, a longtime sponsor of campaign-finance reform, agreed to a July starting date for the House debate on the issue.

Early support

In a more striking sign of support, Rep, Charles Norwood (R) of Georgia, the father of the patients' bill of rights, in February declined to show up at a bipartisan press conference announcing a new initiative on this front.

After a one-on-one meeting with the president, Representative Norwood said he was delaying his endorsement of the new initiative to give the president the opportunity "to provide some input on the issue."

Time's up. Under pressure from GOP moderates, House leaders are taking up both issues as they return from recess tomorrow. Both campaign-finance reform and a patients' bill of rights have passed the House before, with strong bipartisan support. But in both cases, members knew the bills were likely to die in the Senate - which they did.

Now, both bills will hit the House floor after strong votes in the Senate. In both cases, the GOP leadership has encouraged alternative bills that would be more acceptable to the White House.

Reforming campaign finance

First up will be campaign-finance reform. Senator McCain and Republican moderates have been laying the political groundwork for this vote for months. In addition to public meetings around the country, they have also been circulating the names of GOP freshmen who endorsed reform during their campaigns but who are not now backing the bill.

"The [GOP] leadership has been telling them, 'Don't get on the bill,' but that would be a mistake," says Representative Shays.

The key to getting the bill on the president's desk will be making sure that the Senate and House versions are close enough to avert the need of a conference, say supporters.

"We believe that the Republican leadership wants to ... put it into an endless conference and kill it by not letting it come out," says House minority leader Richard Gephardt.

Patients' bill of rights

The debate on the patients' bill of rights, which comes up after campaign finance, could be even more spirited. It's a high stakes issue for Mr. Bush, who is working behind the scenes to avoid an unpopular veto.

The Senate version of the bill, which passed 59-36, allows patients to sue their health plans in federal and state courts. Reps. Greg Ganske (R) of Iowa and John Dingell (D) of Michigan are sponsoring a similar bill in the House. GOP leaders are backing an alternative bill that includes many of the same patient protections, such as the right to appeal an insurers' decisions, but limits legal options.

Bush has been meeting with moderate Republicans who backed the patients' bill of rights in the past, trying to get them to switch to his preferred version.

He's lost one already. Representative Norwood has promised to "embrace [the Ganske-Dingell] bill as my own and take it to the floor."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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