Bush takes a domestic moment

There is some irony in the trouble that President Bush is having selling his budget and tax-cut proposals to the Republican majorities in Congress that he helped to create.

After consulting with legislators at a weekend retreat in West Virginia, the president and his Cabinet are using the time before the Iraq situation reaches its expected climax in late February to fan out around the country for town-hall meetings soliciting support for the administration's economic-growth package (no longer called "stimulus package").

Mr. Bush's standing in the opinion polls as domestic leader lags behind his standing as wartime leader. A significant minority of Republicans join the Democrats in expressing reservations about eliminating dividend taxes while projecting a $300 billion deficit. And that is without even figuring in the cost of a war.

Medicare reform, which the president promised in his State of the Union address, remains more a slogan than a program. Little is heard any more of the idea of requiring Medicare beneficiaries to shift to managed care plans as a condition for receiving government-subsidized prescription-drug benefits.

In emphasizing job growth as the primary weapon against poverty, Bush has effectively shredded what President Reagan called the Federal "safety net" for the poor. The administration's proposal would tighten work requirements for welfare recipients without providing working mothers with adequate child care.

The preschool Head Start program, one of the most successful ventures of the Johnson "war on poverty," would be turned over to the states, without adequate funding. The school lunch and breakfast programs for low-income children would be cut back. Funds for public housing would be cut. Tucked away in the budget documents is a provision that would turn the $50 monthly maximum rent for tenants in government-subsidized housing into a minimum rental. A new class of people may be created called "the working homeless."

The president's budget loads a heavy burden on the money-strapped states. Sixteen states have already announced tax increases for the coming year.

At those town-hall meetings, you will not hear much from the president and his lieutenants about the shifting of the tax burden to the states. The emphasis is on the theme set at the West Virginia retreat. The president spoke of "a domestic agenda that is positive and strong and hopeful and optimistic."

His purpose, Bush said, is to put more money into the "pockets of the entrepreneurs of America," which would be "good for those who are looking for work." But the deficit grows, the economy lags, and the poor get poorer.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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