Outlines of an early Bush agenda

President-elect will stick to issues he credits for win: entitlement reform, strong defense, tax cuts.

George W. Bush's road map for America's next four years depends on two things - cooperation from Democrats in Congress and a strong economy.

There's no guarantee he will get either.

President-elect Bush stuck to his campaign promises Wednesday night as he laid out issues he hopes to build consensus on early in his administration.

Education will be priority No. 1. Close behind will be prescription-drug relief for seniors. Reform of Social Security, tax relief, and the military will also get early attention.

Republicans are cautious about prospects for these initiatives, even during the traditional "honeymoon" with Congress. Many, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, recommend that Mr. Bush move his agenda ahead in careful increments.

Yet the word out of Austin, Texas, where Bush has been meeting with senior advisers and Republican congressional leaders, is that his broad policy proposals were what won the election, and he will stick with them.

To energize America's schools, Bush promises to use federal dollars to get more accountability from educators. If schools fail to improve after three years, funds would be diverted to parents - either for tutoring, or for vouchers at public, private, or parochial schools.

This marks a sharp break with previous GOP strategy. In the early 1990s, Republicans were calling for closing the US Department of Education. Bush would strengthen Washington's role.

A top prospect to lead this effort is Rod Paige, Houston's popular school superintendent. Mr. Paige introduced an intensive early-reading program there that produced big gains among black and Hispanic students.

Leaders in the movement for parental choice, such as Arizona school superintendent Lisa Keagan and former Milwaukee superintendent Howard Fuller, are also possible candidates.

Social Security reform could be a tough sell for the Bush team. The president-elect would allow individuals to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in personal retirement accounts. But attempts to reform Social Security have traditionally met resistance in Congress.

On Medicare, Bush could reach out to conservative Democrats such as Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, who led a bipartisan commission to reform Medicare in 1998-99. Bush would offer seniors a choice of private plans, similar to what is available for federal employees.

On military issues, Bush should have an easier job. He goes into the White House with a team of advisers that is top-heavy with former Pentagon heavyweights. These include Vice President Dick Cheney (former secretary of Defense), Colin Powell (former chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff), Richard Armitage (top Reagan Defense official), and Paul Wolfowitz (adviser to Mr. Cheney at the Pentagon). Even his likely national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, worked briefly at the Pentagon.

During the campaign, Bush pledged to improve military readiness, in part by pulling some troops back from overseas - although some analysts have cautioned that this could strain relations with European allies.

Nevertheless, as new crises arise, Bush will be less likely to intervene than President Clinton was.

Bush also put forth an ambitious arms-control platform that called for cutting offensive strategic nuclear missiles and partially replacing them with defensive missiles, otherwise known as National Missile Defense. This may be difficult. The Pentagon has resisted cutting its nuclear arsenal, and NMD technology remains questionable.

Perhaps the biggest and most immediate national-security issue Bush will face is budgetary. GOP analysts predict a "train wreck" of skyrocketing defense costs, as cold war systems begin to break down and replacements enter the procurement stage. Bush is expected to add $10 to $20 billion annually to today's budget of about $300 billion, but some analysts say that may not be enough.

"Funding is what worries me the most," says a Republican defense expert who has been working with the Bush campaign. "There are a lot of holes to fill and we don't know if there will be enough money."

Whether the issue is the military, education, or drug benefits, getting the job done will be even harder for Bush and the new Congress if the economy falters.

Mr. Clinton won the presidency in 1992 by focusing like a laser on the economy. But when Clinton hands the reins of government to the president-elect, the glow will be off the nearly 10-year boom, the longest in American history.

Profits are weakening across the country. Retail sales were down in November. Job growth has slowed. New claims for unemployment insurance are at the highest monthly level in 2-1/2 years. The stock market, particularly for technology companies, has spun into a ditch.

Adding to concern is the run-up of energy prices. Oil output around the world is at maximum levels in every nation except Saudi Arabia - and even that country, with the world's largest reserves, has only a modest amount of idle capacity.

More recently, cold weather in the US has sent prices for natural gas spiking to record levels. Uncomfortably high prices are expected to last through 2001.

Unless the new president can coax more growth out of America's factories and offices, his administration's prospects could wane faster than the Super Bowl hopes of the Washington Redskins. It was, after all, the economy that sank the presidency of his father, George H.W. Bush.

Perhaps it is serendipitous that one of the president-elect's principal promises to the voters was a huge tax cut - a cut ridiculed by Democrats. If the economy continues to weaken, some say those very tax cuts could help fuel the next economic expansion.

Staff writer Justin Brown contributed to this story.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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