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For Bush, Victories Haven’t Come Easily

Times Staff Writer

Two days after he won election to a second term, President Bush told the nation he intended to spend the “political capital” he had amassed on ambitious goals: An overhaul of Social Security that would replace safety net guarantees with an “ownership society;” rewriting the Byzantine tax code; and revamping the legal system to crack down on medical malpractice lawsuits.

Six months into Bush’s second term, none of those goals has been realized.

As Congress heads off for a monthlong recess, Republican leaders are talking up their legislative accomplishments -- especially a flurry of legislative activity last week in the rush to adjourn. But those bills fall short of the aims Bush set for his second term, and they show how hard the president now has to work to achieve even modest victories.

Bush overcame resistance in the House and won approval of a new trade agreement -- but only by the narrowest of margins, and after a difficult lobbying effort by top administration officials and the president.

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Congress passed the first rewrite of national energy policy in a decade -- but only after Bush pushed for four years to get a bill, and experts said it would have little short-term effect on consumers.

Bush is expected to place his choice for United Nations ambassador, John R. Bolton, on the job in the coming days -- but only by exercising the president’s little-used power to make appointments during a congressional recess.

And though Republicans finished work on a slew of bills last week, they have gotten nowhere on the issue that Bush has spent six months promoting across the country: restructuring Social Security.

Meanwhile, Bush put off for two months the reporting deadline for a commission he had set up to study tax changes. One part of Bush’s legal reform agenda -- an effort to discourage class-action suits -- has been approved. The White House is shadowed by an investigation of an unauthorized disclosure of an undercover CIA agent’s identity. And polls show increasing public dissatisfaction with the job performance of Bush and Congress.

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Republicans are hoping to improve their public standing by broadcasting their accomplishments during the August recess.

The legislative record “is a huge verification that this is a governing party, that we can get things done,” House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said.

But the accomplishments of the last six months may be a forecast of what Bush can hope for during the rest of his second term: pushing harder than ever for aims less ambitious than he hoped -- or than he achieved in his first term.

“The president ends up realizing impressive victories,” said Thomas E. Mann, an expert on Congress at the centrist Brookings Institution. “But there are no really big, consequential pieces of legislation.”

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Democrats portray the Republican agenda as removed from the kitchen-table concerns of the public and, so, of limited political import.

“I don’t think anything that happened this week is going to represent a shot of adrenaline for the Bush White House,” Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) said.

To be sure, Republicans’ gains in the 2004 election make it easier for them to win on some issues, such as the bill that passed the Senate last week to shield manufacturers from many gun-crime lawsuits, a top priority of the National Rifle Assn.

The bill stalled in the last Congress after gun-control advocates attached amendments opposed by the NRA, but their narrow victory margin was altered by the 2004 elections, which added four Republicans to the Senate. This year, those GOP gains helped secure long-sought approval for bills to make it harder for consumers to shed their debts through bankruptcy and to win class-action lawsuits.

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Despite expanded GOP majorities, however, Bush often has had to push harder for his victories, because Democrats are pushing back harder than ever.

Democrats made a concerted effort to withhold their party’s support from the Central American Free Trade Agreement that passed the House last week by a two-vote margin. In recent years, more House Democrats have supported trade measures than the 15 who voted for CAFTA. Moran, one of the 15, said the absence of Democratic support was a measure of how polarized Washington had become during Bush’s tenure.

“This passed marginally, when it should have passed overwhelmingly,” Moran said.

It took a full-bore White House arm-twisting effort, including personal appeals by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, to get enough Republican votes for the trade pact.

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“Of all the votes we’ve had, the president was more personally responsible for moving members [on CAFTA] than anything we’ve done to date,” Blunt said.

In the Senate, a united Democratic front has succeeded so far in blocking a vote on Bolton’s U.N. nomination. Democrats have cited the administration’s refusal to provide documents they say they need to assess his qualifications.

Bush plans to circumvent a Democratic filibuster and install Bolton during the August recess by using the president’s power to make appointments while Congress is not in session.

Democrats have not shown such fighting spirit in responding to Bush’s nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court, in part because he is not as conservative as some of the candidates Bush considered for the bench.

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Bush won a long-sought victory with passage of the energy bill, which provided tax breaks and other incentives to boost domestic energy production. But critics call it a hollow victory, because it does little in the short term to make the United States less reliant on foreign oil or provide relief for motorists paying record prices for gasoline.

“The bill is most notable for the contrast between rhetoric and reality,” Mann said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said it was unreasonable to expect quick fixes for energy problems so long in the making.

“We didn’t get into this overnight,” McClellan said. “We’re not going to get out of it overnight.”

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The bill did not include the cornerstone of Bush’s energy policy: an expansion of oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That may come later this year in a separate bill.

The White House claimed another victory in persuading Republicans to lower the cost of a transportation bill that cleared Congress last week, but it came after a two-year fight. The bill subsidizes thousands of road, transit and bridge projects that lawmakers are eager to deliver to their home districts. Republicans had initially sought so much funding that Bush threatened to veto it. The final $286.5-billion bill is more than the $284-billion ceiling Bush had set, but the White House is apparently willing to accept that, because it is billions less than the lawmakers had been considering earlier.

“Congress has come significantly down in terms of the amount of money that they are dedicating to this,” McClellan said.

For all the Republicans’ fanfare, however, none of the bills passed in the last week was on the priority list in the first news conference Bush gave after his reelection.

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Bush’s defenders said that was, in part, a function not of diminished clout but of how ambitious the president’s agenda was.

“He’s tackling huge issues,” Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis) said. “It’s heavy lifting no matter who is president.”


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