What Bush may get in Year Two

Medicare, Social Security reform, and his energy plan face tough prospects. 'Softer' initiatives look better.

Despite high approval ratings and the glow surrounding his State of the Union address, President Bush is going to face a difficult year translating his latest visions for America into reality.

True, elements of his "softer" agenda unveiled this week - a new corps of citizen volunteers, safer retirement accounts, improved reading for preschoolers - are initiatives that few people, even in Washington, will quibble with and they are likely to prevail in some form.

Yet some of his more ambitious programs not related to the war, many of which are already pigeonholed in congressional-committee drawers, will have to survive two formidable forces in the nation's capital at the moment: Democrats' balkiness in an election year, and reticence from conservatives within his own party.

That means, for instance, there is likely to be little progress on Social Security and Medicare reform, two goals the president mentioned Tuesday night. With the federal budget moving back into the red, the outlook for expensive proposals such as a prescription drug benefits, also high on Bush's wish list, look problematic as well.

"The president will get all the support he asked for on the war and on homeland security," says Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, and former domestic advisor to President Clinton. But beyond that the prospects "are not very good," he says.

Indeed, Bush may face some of his fiercest opposition from within his own party. Republican conservatives in the House are already upset that the president is willing to accept a $80 billion deficit, which will be detailed when the White House releases its 2003 federal budget on Monday.

Concerned about how it will be perceived in November, House conservatives planned to raise the issue at a retreat with GOP lawmakers this week. House majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas has already expressed his distaste about running a deficit with White House budget director Mitch Daniels.

"The congressman is eager to have a balanced budget this year, if at all possible," says Jonathan Grella, an aide to Mr. DeLay (R) of Texas.

Odd friends

Some conservative Republicans will also have reservations about another item on the president's to-do list - a patients' bill of rights. For weeks now, the White House has been meeting quietly with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and his staff to explore a compromise on the contentious issue of patients' rights to sue healthcare providers.

The last time the administration negotiated with Mr. Kennedy - on education reform - it gave up one of its most cherished items, school vouchers. If the president were to compromise "too much" again - or at least be seen as siding with one of the GOP's great nemesis in this debate, trial lawyers - it could further alienate conservative Republicans.

Consequently, the president may have to spend as much time wooing Republicans this year as Democrats. "My belief is that his political capital should be expended in his own party because it won't pay him dividends in any other party," says Thomas Mann, a government expert at the Brookings Institution here.

It is true that the president is unlikely to find many easy converts on the other side of the aisle, either. The clashes will be particularly pointed with Democrats over two major Bush items - his energy plan and an economic stimulus package.

In his Tuesday address, the president, sounding like a populist, said his economic-security plan "can be summed up in one word: jobs." The line brought the chamber to its feet, but his way of getting there - including making his 10-year tax cut plan permanent - sparks little enthusiasm among the opposition.

Nor is there a lot of incentive for either side to give much on the issue. With the economy starting to grow again - albeit slowly - both parties have good excuses not to alter their positions.

Similarly, charting a new energy course for the country seems like a good idea in principle, and Americans share the White House concern about dependence on foreign oil. But sensitive issues like drilling in Alaska wilderness areas, and now the Enron scandal, cloud the prospects for a plan this year.

One presidential priority that may pass is Bush's demand for trade promotion authority, which would allow him to more easily negotiate trade deals. The president had to make deals with GOP members in the House last year to get it through, and he's now pushing the Senate to take it up.

"I tend to think we're going to get trade. Fundamentally, the Senate is sympathetic," says Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst in Washington.

Outlook for campaign finance

Campaign-finance reform - one of Washington's most perennially volatile issues - could also squeak through on Bush's watch. Though the president has opposed a major overhaul of the system, Mr. Reed says Bush has warned Republicans that they can't count on him to veto campaign-finance reform.

Given all the uncertainty in the president's nonterrorist agenda, it's perhaps not surprising that he's encouraging "softer" initiatives, such as volunteerism and early education. "Who's against spending more money on early reading?" asks Mr. Rothenberg.

• Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.

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