Bush to Urge Democrats to Consider His Domestic Policy

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 3, 2007

In an attempt to sustain key elements of a domestic agenda pronounced dead on arrival by congressional critics, President Bush will challenge the newly empowered House Democrats to give his health-care and energy proposals serious consideration when he addresses them today during a retreat in Virginia.

Confronted by the reality of a Congress now controlled by Democrats, Bush has maintained his trademark determination regarding Iraq, pushing forward with a military buildup despite widespread Democratic opposition.

On domestic matters, however, Bush has recently adopted the rhetoric -- but not the policy positions -- often associated with Democrats. He has invoked the menace of global climate change, lamented the nation's growing income inequality, and set ambitious goals to develop alternative fuels and cut gasoline consumption. He has also proposed a plan to make health insurance more affordable to the 47 million people in the country who lack coverage.

Congressional Democrats have greeted such offerings with suspicion. Leading House Democrats remain dismissive of Bush's health-care proposals, in particular. And as they met yesterday during their retreat in Williamsburg, caucus leaders said the onus remains on the president to reach out by backing the domestic initiatives -- including an increase in the minimum wage and a reduction in student-loan rates -- that the new House approved during its first weeks.

"Is he going to stand in the way, or is he going to join us?" asked Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Joel D. Kaplan, Bush's deputy chief of staff and a key figure in the development of the president's agenda, said the president's domestic plans confront "real challenges faced by real people, and they provide real solutions."

Under Bush's health-care-coverage plan, the federal government would create a tax deduction to offset the cost of health insurance. The value of employer-provided health insurance that exceeds the deduction would be taxed as income.

Because the deduction would apply to income before taxes for Social Security and Medicare are subtracted, Bush's plan would mean a tax cut for families who buy health insurance even if they pay little or no income tax. For a family earning $20,000 a year, the savings would be significant -- $2,295 a year, the White House said.

The tax plan would be complemented by a Bush proposal to redirect some of the federal health dollars now being spent by states on hospitals and other institutions, so that they can use them to help pay the cost of health insurance for the poor and for people who have difficulty getting coverage because of chronic health problems.

The White House thought that the idea's progressive tilt would be attractive to Democrats. But key Democrats almost immediately rejected the two plans, calling them the latest in a line of GOP efforts to push workers away from employer-provided health insurance and into individually purchased plans.

"We're not too enthusiastic about either of those proposals," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.).

Washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane in Williamsburg contributed to this report.

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