Advisers, activists lobby for spot on Bush to-do list

Even briefest mention in speech is coveted prize

February 02, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Members of the Congressional Black Caucus had a little suggestion for President Bush at a White House meeting recently: Why not put a few words about their top issue - America's racial divide - into his State of the Union address?

Bush was noncommittal. But it's the sort of request that he and his advisers have gotten often over the past few months.

When the president delivers the first State of the Union of his second term at 9 tonight, scores of Cabinet officials, lawmakers and activists will be listening to hear if their pet lines made it into the speech.

Traditionally, the address is a defining moment when the president outlines his agenda for the year, spelling out priorities and laying down markers that can raise awareness, jump-start legislation and tug at Congress' purse-strings.

A mention, however brief, in the speech is a coveted prize. What emerges from Bush's lips as smooth rhetoric and well-rehearsed cadence is in part the result of a fiercely competitive lobbying contest among the president's closest advisers, interest groups and sometimes even ordinary citizens who have pressed for a spot on the nation's most influential to-do list.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus put in their unsolicited two cents last week. They suggested to Bush that he address the issue of racial disparities, said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, who attended the meeting.

"The State of the Union sets a tone, and we just wanted our agenda to be part of that," Cummings said. "Our theory was that if it becomes a part of the State of the Union, where [Bush] is laying out to the world and to the Congress what he is concerned about, it is more likely that people will pay attention to it and take some action."

It is highly unlikely that Bush will take the group's suggestion, not least because it was offered up at the 11th hour for inclusion in a speech that administration officials say has been largely finished for weeks. As of yesterday, the president was on draft 17.

Bush's address will highlight the sweeping goal - prominently featured in his inaugural remarks - of spreading freedom around the world. But he will also provide details of his priorities, including new specifics on how he wants to overhaul Social Security and add personal retirement accounts, administration officials said.

He will call on Congress to rein in spending and cut existing programs to reduce the deficit, to pass legal reforms, to enact a broad energy plan that stalled on Capitol Hill in his first term, and to pass new education and job training measures, a senior administration official said.

Guerrilla tactics

White House lore is thick with tales of Cabinet secretaries resorting to guerrilla tactics - such as camping out outside the speechwriter's office - to win a mention in the address. One Cabinet secretary yanked then-deputy speechwriter Jeff Shesol out of the White House family theater where President Bill Clinton was rehearsing his address for a heated last-ditch call "to make damn sure that this agenda item ended up in the speech," Shesol recalled. The former presidential scribe would not identify the offending official but said the tactic paid off; he got his mention.

In the Bush White House, say those close to the president, the process is more orderly. Bush decides in advance on three or four themes he wants to emphasize, and word goes out quietly among agencies and advisers that they should send back suggestions in line with those ideas.

Bush doesn't like to take "the laundry-list approach" that many presidents have, said Charles Black, a GOP strategist and informal Bush adviser.

Still, in the months leading up to the speech, it can be hard to avoid a free-for-all of suggestions and input.

"It is the most litigated and the most sought-after speech for administration people - and really anybody - who want to get their pet projects mentioned or their big ideas aired," said Terry Edmonds, Clinton's speechwriter for his last State of the Union in 2000.

Edmonds fielded calls from a wide range of would-be contributors to that speech, including Andrew M. Cuomo, Clinton's housing secretary, who lobbied persistently for one of his agency's initiatives; and an ordinary citizen - "I can't imagine how she got my number" - whose suggestion he no longer recalls.

Those jockeying for a mention this year include conservative social activists concerned about gay marriage and health-industry groups eager for mention of an information-technology initiative Bush touched on last year.

Health-care industry leaders have been button-holing "anybody and everybody" they can find in the administration to ensure a prominent mention, said Bill Head, vice president of policy and government affairs for the National Alliance for Health Information Technology.

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