Bush's to-do, and undo, list

Call it "principle" vs. civility. Call it partisan reality vs. bipartisan dreams. The early signs from the second Bush administration show tension between the president's aim of achieving "shared accomplishments" and his need to draw quick conservative lines in the sand.

With no clear mandate from the voters - a fact that went unmentioned in the Inaugural Address - Mr. Bush, in his first week in office, seemed intent on devising a laundry list of things to do and things to undo.

"Undo" came first. Education reform was to have been the theme of the first week, but the president's first official act was a bow to the Christian right on the 38th anniversary of the Supreme Court's legalization of abortion. The White House announced the intention of banning funds for international family- planning groups that even counsel on abortion. This reinstates a prohibition that President Clinton had lifted.

The initial approach to Congress also did not signal a high priority for bipartisanship. The president met with Republican leaders on his legislative agenda on his first working day, but put off a meeting with Democratic leaders until Wednesday. Instead he met on the first day with out-of-office Democratic elders like Robert Strauss and former Sens. John Glenn and Paul Simon.

Indications were that major legislative proposals would be introduced first and bipartisan consensus, if any, would be achieved in negotiations later.

Education seemed likely to be the first test. The president outlined a proposal for overhauling the system of federal funding for schools that seemed close, in many respects, to what a group of Democrats led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman are urging.

The crucial difference is that the Democrats would convert low-performing public schools into charter schools while Bush proposes giving parents $1,500 per child that could be spent on private schooling. The administration avoids the word "vouchers," preferring to speak of "scholarships" or "parental choice."

The administration has not so far indicated any great interest in negotiating with the Democratic Senate and House leadership, preferring to seek the support of individual Democrats.

On the tax-cut proposal, which was designated the theme of the second week, the administration has succeeded in peeling off Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia to co-sponsor, with Republican Phil Gramm of Texas, a bill embodying the president's ideas of reducing taxes by $1.3 trillion and eliminating the marriage tax "penalty" and the inheritance tax.

The Democrats are pushing a smaller tax package, targeted more to middle-class families. It is not clear that, on taxes, the administration is ready for any "shared achievement." Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle says, "We are willing to negotiate."

At this point the administration seems to be leaning toward the strategy adopted by President Reagan in 1981, when he won a huge tax cut with the aid of the so-called "boll weevil" Democrats.

The dawn of the second Bush era in Congress is likely to be further complicated by Sen. John McCain's insistence on making campaign reform the first order of business and by the fractious debate over the confirmation of John Ashcroft as attorney general, now put off until February.

So far the administration seems in no mood for grand compromises. But this is only the first week, and the administration is still learning the ropes.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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