Lately, Dick Cheney is merely vice president

Just a few months ago, Vice President Dick Cheney was Washington's go-to guy.

President Bush delegated top priorities - like putting America on a secure energy path and devising a budget - to him. Lawmakers sought him out as the key dealmaker. The media proclaimed him the gravitas-filled man of experience.

How quickly things change.

These days Mr. Cheney is about as visible as a stealth bomber. He's still in all the big West Wing meetings - and still has a close relationship with Mr. Bush. But in recent months he has acted more the role of traditional vice president - pep talks to local Republican clubs, funerals, and radio shows. Consider, too, his new assignment: leading a task force on domestic terrorism - important, but not at the center of the White House agenda.

Cheney's diminution may simply be a part of the new administration's natural evolution. But some speculate that it represents a deliberate effort by the White House - or perhaps Cheney himself - to lessen his role.

Several developments may be reshaping his job:

• Cheney's handling of energy policy. Today is his deadline for responding to a congressional inquiry concerning the groups and companies his task force met with while it was developing its recommendations. So far, he has refused to provide the information. But his approach exposed a political Achilles' heel - the perception that the Bush administration is in the pocket of big business. It has also sparked comparisons with Hillary Rodham Clinton's secretive healthcare-reform group in 1994.

• His health - including three heart procedures since inauguration. This has led to whispers that Cheney may not be Bush's running mate in 2004, which casts a lame-duck pall over his activities.

• The growing confidence of other Bush team members - including the president himself. Their surer footing makes Cheney less needed as an out-front presence.

"He's going to play a smaller role now," says Leon Panetta, White House chief of staff under President Clinton. The energy controversy, especially, "made it difficult for Cheney to try to cross over into other areas."

That's because some constituents and interest groups now see Cheney as prone to prejudging an issue rather than as an objective listener. "You want to use someone as good as Cheney to negotiate policy," adds Mr. Panetta. But that won't work if he becomes "damaged goods."

So far, Cheney is the only Bush administration member to be officially investigated. At issue is whether the General Accounting Office - under prodding by congressional Democrats - has authority to make public what Cheney's aides call "executive deliberations." "We don't believe the GAO has the legal authority to request what they're requesting," says spokeswoman Juleanna Glover Weiss. "We were as open in this process as we could be."

If Cheney refuses to divulge the information by today, the GAO can pursue the matter in court. It would mark the first time the GAO has filed suit against the executive branch to obtain access to information.

Besides the GAO probe, Cheney also took a hit on his energy plan. His dismissal of conservation - as a "personal virtue" that shouldn't be a part of public policy - was poorly received, and he has since retreated from that stance.

A July Gallup poll found that just 38 percent of Americans supported the White House plan. That's not much better than the 34 percent approval of Mrs. Clinton's healthcare proposal back in July 1994.

As for Cheney's health, it gets little attention day-to-day. But "it certainly makes a difference" in that it's always on people's minds, says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University here.

Finally, the president and his team are gaining know-how, seen in Bush's increasingly skillful negotiations with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. That has changed the power equation, says Martha Joynt Kumar, a University of Maryland political scientist: "If members of Congress see the president as a competent dealmaker, why would they go to No. 2 when they can go to No. 1?"

Some analysts say Cheney's lessening role could harm the White House's effectiveness. "Vice presidents are key in insulating the president by being the ones who float trial balloons or send tough messages," says Mr. Thurber. If Cheney keeps a really low profile, he won't be able to do those tasks as well.

Yet Cheney's dimming star, observers say, may benefit Bush in an important way: by helping to dispel the idea that Cheney and others are the real powers behind Bush.

Others, though, say Cheney won't be sidelined for long because he has too many strengths: his loyalty to the Bush clan, his Washington experience, and the fact that he won't be trying to replace Bush as president. All that "means he's inoculated and trusted," says Thurber.

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