Jewish World Review August 6, 2001 / 17 Menachem-Av, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Consumer Reports

New Bush muscle with congress -- PRESIDENT BUSH'S success in getting enough fellow Republicans in the House to swallow his compromise deal on a patients' bill of rights demonstrated a new aggressiveness on his part. But he still must cope with the Democrats' determination not to let him steal one of their favorite issues.

Whether he charmed or strong-armed Republican Rep. Charles Norwood of Georgia, who had been locked in an alliance with the Democrats on a version seeking stronger patient access to the courts against health maintenance organizations, Bush snatched at least temporary victory from very possible defeat with the compromise deal.

Six unhappy Republican moderates who were in the alliance with Norwood and the Democrats voted against the compromise. But according to one of the six, Rep. Connie Morella of Maryland, about 10 other Republicans in the alliance voted for it to produce Bush's six-vote victory on the critical vote.

The Democrats have vowed to continue the fight in a conference committee with the Senate on the bill. The earlier Senate approval by a wide margin of the stronger version means differences will have to be thrashed out, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle greeted the House vote by observing that "it shouldn't be viewed as the last word."

Democratic leaders like House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt have accused Bush of wanting to kill the legislation, but it's more likely the president wants some kind of patients' bill of rights to shore up his slipping claim that he is, as he likes to put it, a "compassionate conservative."

Just as strong an argument can be made - and the Republican leadership has been making it - that the Democrats are the ones who would prefer no legislation rather than the softer Bush compromise, so they can blame the president for killing any patients' bill of rights. The Democrats have been counting on the issue as a centerpiece of their hopes to pick up the six House seats in 2002 they need to wrest control from the Republicans.

The Democrats' recent success in corralling Republican moderates in the House, as they did in rejecting the GOP leadership's procedural bid to emasculate campaign finance reform and on some environmental issues, had thrown the president distinctly on the defensive in the House as well as in the Senate, where the party defection of Sen. Jim Jeffords handed control to the Democrats.

Bush, with his patients' rights victory, and the earlier House approval of his Big Oil-friendly energy bill, has now given the strongest evidence yet of his willingness and ability to get personally into the political trenches to wage and win battles on Capitol Hill.

At the same time, however, his success in whispering in fellow-Republican Norwood's ear or twisting his arm, or both, does not constitute the sort of bipartisanship he promised to bring to town to change the Washington climate of contention he so deplored in last year's presidential campaign.

Instead, in a page out of Lyndon Johnson's book, Bush called a single Republican colleague to the Oval Office and apparently gave him the treatment for which LBJ was famous - the mailed fist in the velvet glove. Except that Johnson worked his persuasion/intimidation skills on legislators from the opposition party as well as his own.

Nevertheless, Bush's deal with Norwood comes at a most propitious time for the president, as he and Congress prepare to leave town for the August recess. After a steady slide in the polls, he appears to be on the rise again, with the latest Washington Post/ABC News survey giving him a 59 percent approval rating, four points shy of his previous high in April. But only 50 percent of those questioned say he has brought the change he promised, to 47 percent who say he hasn't.

Also, Bush appears still to labor under an elitist image, with 54 percent of those surveyed saying he doesn't understand people like them, and by about 2-to-1 they think he is out of step with them on providing government services and protecting the environment.

But more critical for him right now than public opinion is the challenge of coping with the opposition to him in Congress, and in his own party. Concerning the latter, he showed in the last week a new willingness to take on that challenge himself, in a new display of presidential muscle.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

08/03/01: America's benign neglect
07/30/01: Where is the fear factor?
07/26/01: Dubya, Nancy Reagan and the Pope
07/23/01: Bush's congressional dilemma
07/19/01: Katharine Graham, giant
07/11/01: Finessing election reform
07/09/01: Listening to, and watching, Ashcroft
07/06/01: New comedian in the House (of Representatives)
06/27/01: Spinning Campaign Finance Reform's latest 'headway'
06/25/01: When Dubya says 'the check is in the mail,' you can believe him
06/22/01: The push on patients' rights
06/20/01: If you can't trust historians, how can you trust history?
06/18/01: World Refugee Day
06/13/01: Remembering 'Hubert'
06/11/01: Ventura faces government shutdown
06/06/01: McCain doth protest too much
06/04/01: Memo to the Bush daughters
05/30/01: Missing in action: Democratic outrage
05/30/01: Honoring World War II vets
05/23/01: Lauding the Nixon pardon
05/21/01: Messin' with McCain
05/18/01: A great movie plot
05/16/01: The level of public sensibility these days
05/14/01: "I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States"

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