Storms present opportunities, obstacles for Bush

Energy plans, budget cuts may find traction, but political strength flags

October 02, 2005|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- A devastating hurricane season may have effectively blown away some of President Bush's top initiatives, but Bush is hoping it may breathe new life into some of his favorite policy ideas.

Back on the president's agenda are energy plans and spending cuts that Bush had proposed before, with little or no success. They've been repackaged as urgent hurricane-response action items, in efforts to win passage from a Congress that is eager to be seen as responsive in the post-Katrina world.

Among the renewed calls from Bush: a relaxation in anti-pollution regulations known as "new source review" and a streamlining of environmental and other regulations that might allow for expansion of the nation's refining capacity.

"The storms have shown how fragile the balance is between supply and demand in America," said Bush, who wants Congress to allow refiners to expand their operations "without all kinds of time being taken up through the bureaucratic hurdles."

Drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - a goal of Bush's since he took office - would be another way to address post-hurricane energy supply concerns, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said last week.

Bush also hopes that spending cuts he proposed in February - to jeers from some in Congress - will gain momentum as lawmakers stunned by the dizzying cost of rebuilding the Gulf region look for ways to slow an exploding budget deficit.

But the political reception isn't guaranteed to be warm. The toppling of House Republican leader Tom DeLay from his perch last week won't make it any easier for Bush to make progress on his initiatives and reverse his slide in the polls.

Some lawmakers and analysts are skeptical that Bush will find new momentum for his proposals in the hurricanes' aftermath. The political hit the president suffered from his administration's botched response to Katrina, coupled with the new pressure on the federal budget and a Republican party afflicted by scandal, has sapped his ability to get things done, they argue.

Bush "has reactivated some of the old ideas that were going nowhere, but I don't see that the post-hurricane environment is going to be any friendlier," said Darrell M. West, a political scientist at Brown University. "Bush has lost a lot of political capital, and I think he's going to be in a far weaker position to pursue his agenda."

That has not stopped Bush from seizing on the hurricanes as a potent argument for resurrecting old policy proposals, and some of his Republican allies say it's a worthwhile effort.

Getting lawmakers to agree to spending cuts was always going to be "a heavy lift," said Sen. Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who leads the Budget Committee. "But there are places we could do it, and in light of the present fiscal situation, I think it's incumbent on us to look aggressively at those places."

A group of House conservatives has unveiled proposals to slash more than $500 billion in entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and pensions, as well as lawmakers' pet transportation projects.

With the Texas indictment and ouster of DeLay, a staunch conservative, these hard-liners are more determined than ever to flex their muscles, and a fractious party could give them the opening to do so.

The aftermath of the storms "helps anyone who is pushing for a more thrifty government, because it allows you to have something the public can relate to," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

Bush's chances of accomplishing his most cherished second-term goals, including adding private retirement accounts to Social Security and rewriting immigration laws, have dimmed considerably as Congress turns to more immediate post-Katrina needs. And DeLay's indictment on a campaign finance conspiracy charge has further eroded momentum for Republicans just as they enter a critical year-end crunch.

But party leaders, eager to show the shake-up in their House team won't hamstring their agenda, have new motivation to unify behind proposals Bush is calling essential to hurricane recovery.

"If the Democrats think that we're going to go crawl in a hole and not finish our agenda," DeLay declared last week, "I wish they could've been a fly on the wall," as Republicans met privately after his demotion.

Bush is already facing pressure from Democrats and some moderate Republicans to roll back his biggest accomplishment, more than $1 trillion in tax cuts. Democratic leaders who have long argued that tax cuts unfairly benefit the wealthy while adding trillions to the national debt now have another argument for scrapping it: the cost of hurricane rebuilding, estimated as high as $200 billion.

Most see little chance that the hurricanes will have any impact on Bush's tax cuts, which his top aides say they won't consider reversing. Instead, Bush and his administration are focused on seizing on Congress' activist mood to push other elements of his agenda.

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