Bush Enters Era of Limits as Agenda Hits Resistance

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After months of dominating Washington with his tax cut, budget and education policies, President Bush is getting a crash course in the constraints on his agenda and the limits of his public support.

Congress is charting its own course on issues ranging from health to the environment to disaster aid, steering debate away from Bush's priorities--and in some cases openly defying his wishes.

The president is losing his grip on the agenda in part because Democrats now control the Senate--where they've put onto the legislative fast track a patients' bill of rights measure much broader than Bush prefers. But even members of his party in the House, where the GOP still holds the majority, are starting to follow a path that reflects their home-state and political needs--which do not always coincide with Bush's.

House Republicans, for instance, are preparing a managed health care bill that goes farther than Bush wants. They are passing a series of appropriation bills that overspend Bush's budget, bulking up on such parochial projects as subsidies for apple growers. And Bush's faith-based initiative, which House leaders had hoped to pass this week, is struggling amid unanticipated resistance from the right.

Bush's problems were highlighted by a series of House votes last week rejecting key elements of his energy and environmental plan--as well as a wave of congressional pressure that compelled the administration to accept electricity price caps more stringent than it had earlier preferred.

A Precarious Balancing Act

This flurry of resistance hasn't shifted control of Washington's agenda to Democrats, who are still struggling to fit their policy priorities into the austere budget blueprint Bush pushed into law in the spring. But the sudden succession of reversals and roadblocks the White House has encountered underscores how precariously power remains divided in Washington--and how narrowly political allegiance remains split in the country. Indeed, recent polls suggest America is about as evenly split over the Bush presidency as it was in last year's razor-thin presidential race.

"It's just like October and November," said one Bush political advisor. "Fundamentally, because the electorate is so polarized, the ability to build consensus . . . and keep [legislative] things moving is very difficult and almost impossible."

Neither side has the power to ram its priorities into law, presenting both with basic decisions about how much they should compromise with their adversaries. The progress of the patients' bill of rights has been emblematic: Although it has become clear that Bush will have to accept broader legal rights for patients if he wants to sign a bill into law, Democrats acknowledge they will have to include more legal protections for employers than they had wanted.

"If anyone says, 'It's my way or the highway,' no way is going to win," said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.).

Although Bush hasn't suffered the sharp decline in approval ratings that marked President Clinton's first chaotic months, neither has he mobilized a commanding level of support that would give him decisive leverage over wavering lawmakers. Three national surveys released last week showed Bush's approval rating hovering at a modest 50% to 55%; in two of the polls, Bush's disapproval rating had increased since earlier this spring.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press--an independent polling firm whose survey put Bush's approval at 50% last week--said Bush appears to have been hurt by anxiety about the economy and the energy situation, and a sense among some Americans that he has proved more conservative in office than advertised as a candidate. "He has lost a little bit of the middle," Kohut said.

The surveys suggest Bush has done little to narrow the partisan chasm that defined November's election. In the polls, he drew virtually unanimous approval from Republicans while attracting favorable ratings from at most only one-third of Democrats--a figure lower than voters from the opposition party traditionally provide a new president.

The response to a query in a recent Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll drove home the continuing split. Asked if they agree with Bush on the issues that mattered most to them, 49% of Americans (including 90% of Republicans) said yes, 47% (including nearly 80% of Democrats and a slight majority of independents) said no.

White House advisors believe the coolness of rank-and-file Democrats to Bush has made it easier for congressional Democrats to oppose his ideas and pursue a confrontational approach on their own priorities.

As a result, after months of playing offense on Capitol Hill, the White House is resigned to a summer of defense.

The battles already are joined. The Democratic Senate's insistence on moving the patients' bill of rights measure has forced the hand of House GOP leaders, who had been slow to move the bill. Now, those leaders have joined the effort to find a compromise that would give patients broader power to sue their HMOs than Bush has supported. Democrats promise next to force Bush to respond to such proposals as a new prescription drug benefit for Medicare or an increase in the minimum wage.

GOP Conservatives Resist President

But Bush's problems do not just come from emboldened Democrats. He has been increasingly challenged by members of his own party.

Tensions between Bush and Republicans on Capitol Hill have been growing as Congress has turned to the annual appropriation bills. Earlier this year, Republicans paid great deference to Bush by passing a broad budget blueprint that reflected his priorities, including a limit on the growth of federal discretionary spending at 4%. Now that Congress is filling in the spending details, lawmakers are chafing at that collar.

The House later this week will consider an energy and water spending bill that would provide $1.2 billion more than Bush wants. The House also will debate an agriculture bill that includes a $150-million subsidy for apple growers, despite vigorous administration opposition. Last week, House Republicans ignored White House pleas and slashed spending for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for projects Bush did not request.

The setbacks for the White House on energy and the environment came amid new polls showing that Americans continue to prize environmental protection over energy production--and continue to believe Bush reverses that priority. Against that backdrop, dozens of House Republicans deserted Bush last week and voted against his proposals to expand oil and gas exploration off the Florida coast and on national monument grounds and to relax regulation of hard-rock mining. The GOP defections came mostly among moderates from the Northeast and Midwest, where Bush's stances on energy and the environment are especially controversial.

It has been conservatives who have bridled at other Bush plans. His faith-based initiative has been slowed partly because conservatives fear that strengthened partnerships with government will dilute the moral dimension of religious charities. And on education reform, one of the greatest hurdles to concluding the legislation is concern among conservatives that it centralizes too much power in Washington.

The common theme in all these challenges is that, with power so fractured in Washington, even small groups of dissenters have enormous leverage to block initiatives--either from the White House or Senate Democrats. The critical question ahead is whether that dynamic produces a stalemate on issues such as the patients' bill of rights and prescription drug coverage--or forces compromise. Neither side seems to have entirely settled on its answer.

"Nobody knows exactly how to work any of this," said Charles O. Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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