Next up after taxes: Medicare, the economy

President Bush moves quickly to pass his domestic initiatives as election looms.

Nearly a month after declaring the end of major hostilities in Iraq, President Bush is focusing on his domestic agenda with striking intensity - and urgency. With remarkable speed, he maneuvered his second major tax cut through Congress. Tuesday, he signed into law his plan to help fight AIDS, and he is wasting no time in pressing ahead with other legislative priorities. Next up: adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare.

The pace may not be out of character for a man who is known for running a seven-minute mile and playing lightning-fast rounds of golf. But Mr. Bush is racing against the clock in more ways than one.

Aware that his high approval ratings in the wake of the Iraq war are already beginning to sag, the president now seems determined to spend his political capital to build up his record of domestic achievements - something his father father failed to do after the Gulf War.

Most pressing is the need to boost the economy, which felled his father's presidency and poses the biggest threat to his own reelection prospects. The White House has signaled that this latest tax cut may not be the last before the election.

As election looms, a new urgency

With the campaign already under way, analysts say the president faces a narrowing window of opportunity to make good on other remaining campaign promises before Congress goes home in October and the election year begins.

"He's got to move ahead and show some progress on what he said he would do [domestically]," says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "That's not to say it's only to get reelected - he believes in what he's doing. But it's also a realization that his father lost 35 [approval] points in four months and eventually lost the election."

Items on the president's domestic agenda range from an energy bill to judicial nominations. But his top priorities are likely to be the economy and healthcare - two issues of increasing concern to the public.

Analysts agree that the looming battle over enacting a prescription-drug benefit could be far tougher than the tax cut skirmish. Republicans are under significant pressure to pass a benefit, as many campaigned on the issue in 2002 - and polls show the public currently trusts Democrats over Republicans on healthcare issues by wide margins.

Still, the cost of the measure is likely to prove a sticking point, particularly if the economy fails to improve and the deficit continues to balloon.

"Basically, the way you get a prescription-drug benefit done is through a bidding war," says Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "And Democrats are very much prepared for that bidding war."

In addition, many lawmakers are divided over the White House's plan to offer seniors one benefit under Medicare, and another, more-extensive benefit if they leave the government-run program and enroll in private healthcare plans. Democrats oppose this plan, as do some Republicans from rural areas, where private plans are less widely available.

An issue with wide resonance

Unlike the tax cut fight, when the public by and large sat on the sidelines as lawmakers engaged in a relatively abstract debate over how best to improve the economy, voters may have strong opinions about the issue. "With things like prescription drugs and Medicare, there's a constituency out there that can see very directly how it affects them," says James Pfiffner, a public policy professor at George Mason University.

Still, the president has surprised many observers in the past when it comes to pushing his agenda through Congress.

Stylistically, analysts note, Bush has demonstrated a repeated pattern when it comes to his dealings on the Hill: He puts forth a bold proposal, hawks it relentlessly as lawmakers debate - and in the end, he cuts a deal.

Given the narrow margins of Republican control, he has often had to make significant compromises on the details of his goals in order to achieve anything at all, essentially sacrificing ideological purity for a speedy resolution.

In the case of the tax cut, the president settled for a package worth less than half of what he had originally proposed. Even then, the bill passed almost entirely along partisan lines, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking the tie in the Senate.

One close call too many?

To some observers, this doesn't bode well for the rest of the administration's agenda.

"They've burned their bridges with most Democrats," says Mr. Ornstein. "The only way they can get things done is with this kind of very partisan, high-wire act."

At the same time, others point out that Bush has been unusually effective in corralling members of his own party, exerting a clear core of authority over Republicans in the House and Senate.

In pushing the tax cut, he had to overcome doubts about its effect on the deficit among many GOP members, says Professor Pfiffner. "His ability to overcome those doubts and push it through is a very impressive use of presidential power."

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