After scoring wins, Bush now turns to thorny issues, with eye to legacy

July 31, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When President Bush departs from Washington on Tuesday for a month at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, he'll leave behind a full plate of contentious, unresolved issues.

A midsummer burst of productivity in Congress handed Bush long-awaited victories last week on a Central American trade agreement, a sweeping energy measure and a popular highway bill.

Those achievements proved that Bush - buffeted recently with sagging approval ratings and an investigation into whether White House aides exposed the identity of a covert CIA officer - could still marshal the Republican majorities on Capitol Hill to get things done.

The more difficult feats for Bush now, however, will be selling Congress on the Social Security and immigration overhauls he has tagged as his highest priorities, and which were billed as central elements of his domestic legacy. Both have sparked bitter divisions in Congress, especially among Republicans, and face long odds as lawmakers becoming increasingly concerned about their re-election prospects in 2006.

Fights ahead

"Administrations tend to pluck the low-hanging fruit early on, and you need a higher and higher ladder to get to the rest," said William A. Galston, a White House aide under former President Bill Clinton; he now heads the University of Maryland's public policy school. "This president is running out of extensions to his ladder."

Bush's chances of advancing his goals will be complicated by a potential fight over confirming Judge John G. Roberts Jr., his Supreme Court nominee.

The Senate is also expected to wade into a post-Labor Day debate over federal funding for stem cell research, a time-consuming discussion likely to divide Republicans and potentially draw Bush's first veto.

Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee fired the opening shot in that intra-party skirmish on Friday, when he broke with Bush to support expanding federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cell lines. Bush has said he would veto any measure that used federal funding for research that destroys human embryos, though his policy allows experimentation on existing stem cell lines.

For Bush, the challenges will come at an important time. Many analysts believe second-term presidents have a narrow period of no more than two years before their influence wanes and their major initiatives lose steam.

"The window is quickly closing on an opportunity for the president to construct a domestic legacy in this term, and it's not going to come from the energy bill or the transportation bill," said Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the Democratic-backed Progressive Policy Institute and a former aide to Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Republican strategists say that Bush, having scored early victories on a new bankruptcy law and measures to curb lawsuits, will now focus on broadening his party's appeal.

Bush's efforts to revamp Social Security and his call to overhaul the immigration system - even if both fail in Congress - will draw supporters to the Republican Party, they say, advancing an important goal for Bush and his political adviser, Karl Rove.

Bush "is thinking about building the institutions of conservative government that are going to outlast him, and if that means advancing the agenda to a point where others in the party can pick up where he leaves off, that is a major accomplishment," said David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter.

Key goals

Bush says he will keep pressing to achieve central elements of his agenda despite the difficulties. He told House Republicans as much at a closed-door meeting with them last week, in which he called for action this fall on both immigration and Social Security.

Delivering the measures will be difficult, lawmakers say, given Bush's failure so far to find consensus on them, and the potentially dangerous politics that surround both.

On Social Security, "we're stuck," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, declared flatly last week.

Some Republicans who have puzzled over how to craft a plan that would reflect Bush's wishes without alienating their constituents now are discussing private retirement accounts financed through Social Security's surpluses.

"Is there political uneasiness? Yes," said Rep. Jim McCrery, the Louisiana Republican who proposed the measure. "But we're hopeful that this might be a way to start" to fix Social Security's problems.

The measures being discussed would not improve the program's deteriorating financial situation - something Bush says must be part of any plan - but they would allow future retirees to invest a portion of their benefits in stocks and bonds. Perhaps more important for Republicans and Bush, they would give backers the opportunity to make the politically potent argument that they are moving to protect Social Security's surplus funds from being tapped for other spending.

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