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Bush Goes Back to a Balky Congress

Many of His Previous State of the Union Proposals Have Been Stymied

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2004; Page A11

President Bush has used his three State of the Union addresses to set ambitious goals, but the Republican-dominated Congress has balked at large segments of his domestic agenda over the past three years.

From an energy plan to welfare changes to tax breaks for people to buy health insurance, many of the White House's policies have stalled on Capitol Hill. Last year, lawmakers killed two of the initiatives Bush talks about most frequently: bills that would have limited medical malpractice lawsuits and allowed more federal money to flow to religious groups that provide social services.

At the White House, President Bush practices for tonight's State of the Union speech. Congress has resisted many proposals made in Bush's three previous addresses. (Eric Draper -- White House)

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During this election year, the president and his aides will focus attention on the administration's legislative successes, which have come on several of Bush's central domestic priorities. At his request, Congress cut taxes three times, revised public education, created new anti-terrorism laws and added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Lawmakers quickly passed an administration proposal last year to help African countries cope with AIDS, and they approved a plan to allow more logging in national forests to try to prevent fires.

Yet an examination of the policies Bush highlighted in his previous State of the Union speeches shows that Congress has resisted more of his domestic proposals than it has embraced.

The White House pursued without success legislation to change air-pollution standards. Nor have lawmakers agreed to hand states greater control, as Bush would like, over the nation's largest preschool, health insurance and housing programs for the poor.

Similarly, the administration has made little headway in changing Social Security so that workers could invest some of their payroll taxes in private retirement accounts. And Bush has not persuaded Congress to make permanent several tax cuts that are to expire.

In recent days, White House aides have been reticent about what the president will say tonight. But administration and congressional sources said that much of Bush's address will reprise existing goals. "He set out an aggressive agenda, and he wants Congress to finish it," said deputy press secretary Trent Duffy.

In part, Bush's domestic agenda will sound familiar because the record federal budget deficit, which has occurred since he came into office, is crowding out the opportunity for new plans. In the past, before the State of the Union and the release of its budget in early February, the White House has offered selective previews of policy initiatives that it believed would prove particularly popular. This month, the president has spoken in advance of fewer such proposals: a long-range plan for space exploration and another that would permit illegal immigrants to work in the United States.

Bush has blamed Democrats for thwarting his goals. As he travels the country now in a heavy schedule of campaign fundraising, Bush often uses this line: "On issue after issue, this administration has acted on principle, kept its word and made progress for the American people."

According to policy analysts, government scholars and congressional aides, Bush's difficulty is partly a reflection of the GOP's slim majorities, particularly in the Senate, which has rejected a few bills that have passed the House. The House, for example, has approved welfare legislation and caps on damage awards in medical liability lawsuits -- but the Senate has not.

In addition, those sources say, the White House has made strategic decisions to push hard for a limited number of proposals while largely giving rhetorical support to other parts of its agenda. Even though Bush has talked of altering Social Security since his first presidential campaign, the administration has never drafted an actual proposal for the changes he seeks, and presidential aides have been divided over whether to press for congressional action on such a polarizing issue before the 2004 elections.

Thomas E. Mann, a senior scholar in government studies at the Brookings Institution, said Bush has fared better than many presidents on the items that have been at very top of his agenda. But Mann added: "The president's interests, certainly in this year and in many respects for the first term, were more electoral than legislative. The goal was to get reelected on a basis that would enlarge Republican majorities in both houses. . . . The tougher, more ambitious legislative proposals -- beyond tax cuts -- would come more easily in a second term."

Many congressional aides interviewed for this report acknowledge that several of the White House's proposals have little chance of passage this year, no matter how hard the president pursues them.

For example, neither the House nor the Senate took action last year on a plan to shift to states vast new control over Medicaid, the insurance program for the poor that is a shared federal-state responsibility. A GOP aide in the House said that chamber will continue to hold hearings on that program but said "whether we legislate or not is an open question," because Republicans just "expended a lot of capital" pushing through an overhaul of Medicare, the insurance program for the elderly.

Similarly, House and Senate aides predicted that neither half of Congress will do more this year than debate ways to reduce the number of Americans who have no health insurance, even though White House officials have said that Bush will call in his speech for making health care more accessible and less expensive for the 43 million people who are uninsured. Given the budget pressure created by the deficit, sources said, Bush may not move substantially beyond his proposal of the past two years for $89 billion in tax breaks for people who buy private insurance if they cannot get coverage through their jobs.

Like the president, congressional Republicans are seeking to demonstrate their commitment to the uninsured at a time when Democratic presidential candidates are making access to health insurance a prominent theme of their campaigns. Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has just formed a GOP task force on the issue, but a Republican aide said efforts this year would consist largely of "really starting to lay the groundwork" for an effort that could take a few years.

And White House aides said that, even though Bush talks of changing medical liability laws in many of his speeches -- as he will again Tuesday night -- the administration probably will not prevail quickly. "There's a realization, unless there's a change in the landscape in the Senate, that will be difficult," an administration official said.

The prognosis for other White House proposals is less clear. Senate Republicans are searching for the few additional votes they need to pass an energy bill. And administration and congressional sources predict the Senate is more likely this year to adopt legislation to renew the 1996 transformation of the welfare system. But the Senate version, if it passes, may contain features the White House and the House GOP do not like, including larger subsidies for child care and looser requirements for how much welfare recipients might work.

It remains uncertain whether the White House will continue to push a proposal from last year to convert the government's largest housing program, a system of rent vouchers known as Section 8, into block grants to the states. The idea was resisted even by many Republicans. Some in the GOP now predict that Bush may look for a more popular method to reorganize the housing assistance.

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