WASHINGTON -- A year ago, when President Bush's domestic priority was to restructure the Social Security program, the proposal sank amid partisan dispute.
Now Bush has all but abandoned his Social Security overhaul in favor of a much less ambitious plan. His "American competitiveness initiative," designed to prevent the United States from falling behind its economic competitors in Asia and elsewhere, would provide federal support for math and science education, and basic research in the physical sciences.
In contrast to his proposed Social Security overhaul, the competitiveness plan is triggering a stampede of bipartisan support, and it could be one of the few administration initiatives to be enacted in this congressional election year. In a typical comment, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, said at a House hearing last week: "We need to all roll up our sleeves in a big way."
The sour notes have been few and have come largely from people who wish Bush's initiative had been more ambitious.
The White House "has not put its money where its mouth is on improving American competitiveness," said Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.
Bush's long-range plan calls for doubling the government's annual spending on research in the physical sciences over the next decade from $9.8 billion this year to $19.5 billion in 2016. The 2007 budget, which Bush sent to Congress last week, would provide a down payment of $910 million, an increase of 9.3 percent.
The administration also would provide $380 million in new money next year for math and science education. The goals include training 70,000 additional teachers of advanced high school math and science courses, and encouraging 30,000 math and science professionals to become adjunct high school teachers. Funds also would go to making elementary school students ready for rigorous high school mathematics.
For next year, the administration says it has budgeted $5.9 billion for the competitiveness initiative. But $4.6 billion of that is to resuscitate the tax credit that businesses have used to write off their research and development costs.
That leaves $1.3 billion in new spending to begin training teachers and supporting research through the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department's science office and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Proposing the competitiveness initiative has required Bush to make some trade-offs.
Hamstrung by huge deficits, Bush would freeze the budget of the National Institutes of Health, meaning that funding for biological research would not keep pace with inflation. He also proposed freezing the maximum college Pell grant at $4,050 per year.
The administration also asked Congress to close the Commerce Department's $83 million advanced technology program - grants to businesses to develop new technologies for commercial use - on grounds that private money was available.
"We think we can be more efficient," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said. "Some cuts are good."
Not everyone is so sure.
"We're delighted with the president's identification of competitiveness as an issue," said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an organization of 2,000 public and private colleges and universities. "But the budget deficit makes it difficult to carry through. Accomplishing what the president wants won't be done without a lot of money."
Some business groups see Bush's proposal as half full, not half empty.
The National Association of Manufacturers "heartily" supports Bush's plan, said David Peyton, the group's director of technology policy. In a recent survey of association members, Deloitte Consulting found that 80 percent reported a shortage of qualified workers, a situation that Peyton said the Bush plan would help remedy. But he lamented the prospective loss of the advanced technology program, which he credited with development of the digital mammography machine.
Norman Augustine, retired chairman and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin, became involved when senators asked a panel he led at the National Academy of Sciences to study the challenges to American technological dominance and to evaluate the possible responses.
The Augustine panel's report, to be published in a book called Rising Above the Gathering Storm, is the motivating force behind the leading congressional competitiveness proposal. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, is among the sponsors.
The proposal, a package of three bills, includes many provisions not in the Bush initiative. For example, it would offer 10,000 potential math and science teachers as much as $20,000 per year to pay for college expenses, and an additional $10,000 a year if they committed to teach math or science for five years in public schools with low-income students.
Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times