Sunday, April 29, 2001

Bipartisanship takes back seat to Bush agenda

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — President Bush promised to change the tone of politics and work as closely as possible with Democrats, but he has shown in his first few months in the White House that his commitment is to the conservative public policy agenda he outlined during his election campaign.

        In Congress, the theory that leaders of the two political parties would have to find common ground because of the slim Republican majorities in the House and Senate has also largely crumbled, especially in the House, where conservatives have quickly moved to enact tax and regulatory proposals that would have withered under President Clinton.

        The climate, for many lawmakers, is as partisan as ever.

        “It's interesting,” said Rep. Baron Hill, an Indiana Democrat. “If you agree with Mr. Bush, you're bipartisan. If you disagree, you're partisan.

        “I think most members of Congress are playing a game,” he said of the talk of cooperation. “There are honest disagreements between Democrats and Republicans, and we should not pretend there are not.”

        Rep. Rob Portman, a Terrace Park Republican and the House liaison to the Bush administration, said the president has changed the tone of politics by reaching out to lawmakers and interest groups that opposed him during the campaign. But he said Democrats and other critics should not be surprised that Mr. Bush is following through on campaign promises to lower taxes, reform public education and limit federal government.

        “He laid out an agenda. He's promoting that agenda,” Mr. Portman said. “He's not just going to let the Democrats get their legislation through Congress.”

        The public, like many lawmakers in Congress, is getting familiar with his leadership style. A recent Gallup poll found that people who approve of Mr. Bush like him, his style, his policies and his character, while more than half of those who disapprove of his performance base their decision mostly on specific policies.

        Mr. Bush has spent much of his first few months in office advocating a $1.6 trillion across-the-board tax cut, which has lukewarm support among the public and has divided Congress. The House, led by conservative Republicans, approved the major components of the tax plan, but the Senate sliced its overall cost by a third to appease moderates who want to spend more on education, health care and other issues.

        Rep. Ted Strickland, a Lucasville Democrat, said the president should be reminded that he failed to win the popular vote during the election. “He did not receive a mandate to do the more extreme things he wants to do,” he said. “People, I think, want a more moderate course of action.”

        Many political analysts believe that it would be almost impossible for Mr. Bush to end the bitterness over the election in just a few months. With Congress so closely split between the parties, ambitious Democrats would be foolish to betray their interests with new elections less than two years away. Painting the president as a captive of right-wing Republicans is a useful public relations tool for a party bent on winning back a majority.

        Rep. Ken Lucas, a Boone County Democrat, has supported Mr. Bush's tax and budget proposals and is optimistic about a bipartisan future. “No party or individual has a monopoly on good ideas,” he said.

        The president's education proposal, which recommends annual testing for public school students from third to eighth grades and federal vouchers for parents whose children are in failing schools, was praised by House leaders but immediately challenged in the Senate. After negotiations, the administration agreed to drop its voucher idea and settle for a provision that would allow parents to move their children to a public school of their choice.

        Mr. Portman, an adviser to Mr. Bush during the campaign, said that when Mr. Bush spoke of changing the political culture of the capital, he meant ending the divisiveness of the Clinton era, not rolling over to his opponents.

        “It doesn't mean he's going to change his policies,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, there will be room for compromise.”


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