From GOP Congress, welcome wins for Bush

With his poll ratings still troubled, the president enjoys a week with better headlines.

After months of slumping poll numbers, President Bush is ending the critical summer session of Congress with big wins on issues ranging from a highly controversial trade pact to long-stalled energy and highway bills.

Perhaps more important, his nominee for a vacant Supreme Court seat appears to be headed for a less-toxic confirmation process than analysts had expected.

In Iraq, top commanders have raised the prospect of significant numbers of US troops returning home next year.

"It's a pretty good week for the president," says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University in Washington.

Still, the welcome headlines for Bush come none too soon. Typically, the August break marks the end of prime time for legislation. With at least one Supreme Court nomination pending, the political energy in the fall will be drawn into court fights and must-pass spending bills - and a looming congressional election in 2006.

The White House has taken a battering in the polls over tough war news from Iraq, mounting US casualties, and ongoing pocketbook concerns about job losses and globalization. At the same time, the president faces a daily drip-drip of bad news over involvement of White House advisers in the leaks that outed CIA operative Valerie Plame.

It's a pattern of scandal and slumping public approval that has derailed other second-term presidencies, but President Bush has managed to stay above it - a quality presidential experts say may be his strongest political asset.

Not minding the polls

"He almost makes you believe in the power of positive thinking, because he has just never acknowledged that he's down," says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University. Voted in with the smallest margin of any reelected president, President Bush claimed a big victory and lots of "political capital" to spend in his second term.

This week, he spent some of it to claim an economic and foreign-policy victory on Capitol Hill. In the final hours before lawmakers were to leave town for an August break, the president made a personal appeal to House Republicans for support of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. He cast the accord in national security terms - as buoying the economic and political health of hemispheric neighbors.

At the same time, House GOP leaders held off on finalizing the text of a $286.5 billion highway deal, until the votes were in for CAFTA - a signal, if any were needed, that a "no" vote on trade liberalization could have consequences for members' districts. The trade deal passed late Wednesday night, after Republicans held the vote open past the 15-minute designated time period to eke out a 217-215 victory. Twenty-five Republicans, mostly from textile or sugar states, voted against the White House.

The White House had to back off a veto threats on the highway bill, which came in at $2.4 billion over the level Bush said he would support. But few voters are likely to remember that, as long-delayed highway projects start up in member districts.

Similarly, in the energy bill finalized this week, the $14.5 billion package of tax breaks is more than double the $6.7 billion package the Bush administration wanted. The House version was heavily tilted toward subsidies for traditional energy industries, such as oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear power; the Senate version, toward renewable energy sources and efficiency. The White House could have insisted on splitting the difference. Instead, it chose to have a bill.

Challenges in Iraq

It's not clear how strongly this legislative record will register with voters, who are still largely fixed on the war news from Iraq. As of Thursday night, the president was still at 44 percent on terms of job approval, according to an ongoing poll by Zogby International. "These are partial numbers, with the caveat that it sometimes takes 36 to 48 hours for good or bad news to jell," says pollster John Zogby. "I'm not sure these are the kinds of events that change public opinion in the short term," he adds. "It's all about the war and the fact that things are not going well on the ground. All the polls show that solid majorities of Americans are saying that the war was not worth the loss of American lives."

All the polls show that solid majorities of Americans are saying that the war was not worth the loss of American lives."

Comments by a top US commander in Iraq this week signal a course that could ease such concerns. On Wednesday, Gen. George Casey predicted that the US could begin pulling out troops as early as next spring, if the calendar for Iraqi political institutions and training of security forces is maintained.

"There's a good chance that the drawdown will begin next year in a substantial way, and he's right to tie it to the political calendar and the strength of the insurgency," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution. "To me the big question is who is he trying to reassure: American soldiers getting tired of their deployment, or the American public, or the Iraqi government."

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