A short checklist, long road ahead

Bush goals are few but clear, and face long item-by-item battles.

In what is becoming a signature theme of his presidency, George Bush focused his agenda on only a handful of key initiatives: Some, like tax cuts and Medicare reform, had been signaled weeks in advance; others, such as $15 billion to combat the AIDS epidemic or $1.5 billion to help convert to hydrogen-fueled cars, came as a surprise.

By contrast, President Clinton in his last State of the Union Address laid out 63 priorities - from paying down the national debt to reducing TV violence and global warming. Not much of it made it through the GOP-controlled House.

But even with a short checklist and a Congress controlled by his own party, the president's agenda is not a given on Capitol Hill. Though applauding Bush's message, some Republicans warn that getting from bills to law will require high-wire legislating, and possibly changes to his program. Some measures could hinge on compromises with moderate Republicans as well as with key Democrats.

"Even though the president has unified party government, we still have a situation in the Senate where there is southern domination of the leadership and the need to reach out to moderate Republicans," says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University in Washington.

The Bush plans fit a pattern: This White House sets priorities and sticks with them - varying strategies to fit the political terrain. At the start of the last Congress, Bush set out to cut $1.6 trillion in taxes and overhaul the federal role in education. The tax cut was muscled quickly through Congress, while the "No Child Left Behind" bill was scrupulously bipartisan from the start.

The new agenda includes another round of tax cuts so radical that even supporters were surprised, with "sweeteners" such as new resources for AIDS victims in Africa and drug addicts in America, which could blunt criticism that this administration is just about business. On this page key parts of the plan are examined.

Reach of the AIDS plan

The president's plan to step up US efforts to combat the worldwide AIDS epidemic was welcomed by those fighting the disease. But some activists question the size and timing of the commitment. The administration's five year, $15 billion proposal includes $10 billion in new funds to help African and Caribbean nations where the AIDS epidemic is most severe. Next year the administration proposes spending $2 billion with more funds coming in later years. "I vigorously agree that doing everything within our power to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean is a moral imperative, an initiative squarely within this nation's national interest," says Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland.

"It's difficult to overemphasize the impact that HIV has on any manner of humanitarian programming in Africa," says Dave Snyder of Catholic Relief Services in Africa. "So committing to more resources to combating the disease is one of the best ways to strengthen the overall impact of international aid to Africa."

But the new US commitment must be seen in the context of the scope of the AIDS epidemic, notes Najib Balalal, Kenya's minister of social services. "Fifteen billion dollars over the course of five years, for the entire continent and the Caribbean, well, that's actually not that much."

Both in the US and overseas, some feel that the increased funding is politically motivated. "It's a good thing, more money or medicine to help us, but we have been sick for a long time here and it's interesting that America is remembering us now," says Mugumo Maksud of the Kericho AIDS Community Center in Nairobi.

- Danna Harman and Faye Bowers

Vaccines and the terror war

President Bush's proposed $6 billion "Project Bioshield" would represent a massive national investment in new vaccines that would limit the effects of a bioterror attack. The plan sets aside funds to protect against anthrax, botulinum toxin, ebola, and plague - some of the most widely available agents. It would also ease regulatory restraints, to speed vaccines' availability.

The program would give the White House a kind of preapproved authority to spend up to $6 billion on vaccines for any or all of these toxins. By contrast, the Homeland Security Department's budget is $40 billion this year - and covers protection for American ports, borders, coasts, and more.

Spending so much money on bioterrorism "is a good idea in the abstract, but the question is, 'What are the priorities?' " says Leif Haase, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York. There is wide debate about the likelihood of a bioterror attack.

Yet the nation is ill-prepared for even a minor bio-attack. Many vaccines are either out of date or nonexistent. The anthrax vaccine, for instance, doesn't give full protection - and has more side effects than most vaccines, says Marc Siegel, associate professor of medicine at New York University. "We need to push the research," he says, on this and other vaccines.

- Abraham McLaughlin

Fueling the fuel debate

Bush's announcement of a $1.2 billion initiative to develop fuel-cell cars represents an unusual thrust for an administration known for its oil-industry roots. Fuel cells hold the potential to revolutionize the automotive and oil industries by ending dependence on fossil fuels. But you may want to hold off selling your '89 Pontiac just yet.

Critics see the fuel-cell program as modest at best and a diversion from the real steps needed to encourage conservation. They note that the president opposes raising CAFÉ (fuel economy) standards. They point out that his economic plan would give a tax break to owners of certain gas-guzzling SUVs. They complain that his energy plan includes provisions to open up vast areas to oil drilling. The fuel-cell initiative is a "phony program designed to take the heat off pressure for oil savings," says Dan Becker, a Sierra Club lobbyist.

Nonetheless, Bush's plan would greatly expand the federal "freedom car" initiative announced a year ago to boost research into fuel-cell cars. It would also help Detroit remain competitive with Japanese automakers, who have already produced a few of the vehicles.

By most estimates, a commercially viable fuel-cell car is 15 years away. The nation's fuel stations would also have to be retrofitted to dispense hydrogen at a cost of at least $70,000 per station. While the Bush plan doesn't require Detroit to build the vehicles, some think the research money will speed development. "The president is focusing on a laudable long-term goal," says Steve Navel of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. "But it doesn't preclude the need for short-term action to conserve energy."

- Eric C. Evarts

Drug-plan divide

The President's proposed Medicare and prescription-drug reforms reopen one of the toughest debates on Capitol Hill. For the past three election cycles, both parties have promised voters relief from rising drug costs, but have deadlocked over how to provide it.

The president's new plan commits $400 billion over the next 10 years to giving seniors the choice of keeping their current coverage or signing up for more managed health plans that include prescription-drug benefits.

Even before Bush laid out details of the new plan Wednesday, Democrats said it was a step toward forced privatization. It would push seniors to "choose between the doctors they want and the drugs they need," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. Democrats want to see a drug benefit anchored in the Medicare program.

Healthcare consumer groups predict the plan won't make it past strong Democratic opposition. The coupling of drug coverage with enrollment in private health plans will "make an already difficult uphill climb into a Himilayan expedition," says Ron Pollack of Families USA.

Supporters of the plan, including groups backed by drug companies, say such reform is needed to avoid bankrupting the system.

- Gail Russell Chaddock

A tax cut too far?

Key House and Senate Republicans are already expressing doubts about the president's 10-year, $674 billion tax cut, especially eliminating taxes on stock dividends, which accounts for half the plan's cost. Democrats dub this feature a giveaway to the rich, and make sure to work the phrase "No millionaire left behind" into any critique.

In Senate confirmation hearings this week, Bush Treasury nominee John Snow found some of his toughest questions from the GOP side of the panel. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who nearly derailed the president's first tax cut proposal in 2001, echoed her previous concerns about a tax cut's impact on federal budget deficits.

Democrats hope to turn the tax plan into a referendum on Bush's management of the economy. In unusually coordinated statements between Senate and House minority leadership, Democrats have blamed the White House for a loss of 2.3 million private-sector jobs in the last two years.

In addition, new estimates from the Congressional Budget Office Wednesday projected that this year's budget deficit at $199 billion this year, even before new tax cuts are enacted. At that rate, the nation will face $3.7 trillion in deficits just as the baby boom generation begins to draw on Social Security and Medicare, says Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota. The White House plays down such concerns over the deficit: The aim is to ensure that the economy grows fast enough to employ everyone who wants a job. The Senate vote is likely to be so close that even Republicans admit that changes will be necessary. "I have to do something bipartisan," says Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

On Wall Street, investors voted with their feet after the president's speech. Stocks sold off in Tokyo and continued their slide in London and New York. As of 11 a.m. Wednesday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was off more than 100 points and the broader S&P 500 index down 1 percent.

"Investors are just hunkering down," says Fred Dickson of DA Davidson in Great Falls, Mont. The reason, he says, has less to do with future deficits than a present threat of war. Stockbroker Dean McDermott in Bethlehem, Pa., agrees. "I think people have pretty much concluded that we will go to war.... This is leading some of them to pull out of the market."

- Gail Russell Chaddock and Ron Scherer

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