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Gillespie: Bush Shifts Approach As Legislative Window Closes

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VIDEO |The Post's Peter Baker talks with White House Counselor Ed Gillespie about the president's remaining agenda and what he sees as a renewed momentum for the administration.
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007; 11:08 AM

A senior White House official acknowledged yesterday that President Bush has little chance of passing major legislation through a hostile Congress in his last 13 months in office but will still pursue a "very vigorous agenda" through executive action and foreign policy leadership.

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White House counselor Ed Gillespie said the death of a bipartisan immigration plan last summer convinced Bush advisers that they had to readjust their approach through the final phase of his presidency, focusing on ambitious goals on the international front while downscaling to more small-bore but achievable initiatives domestically.

"We realized at that point that those big legislative reforms were unlikely to pass this Congress and to focus on some administrative actions and also some things maybe we could do that would have real impact on folks in their daily lives," Gillespie said in an interview for washingtonpost.com's PostTalk program. While not ruling it out, he said "the legislative avenue is not a likely route to get some major things done."

Gillespie blamed that on a partisan Democratic leadership in Congress, noting that it has failed to pass 10 of 12 annual spending bills two months into the new fiscal year. But he signaled little interest in compromising in the brewing budget showdown, even though Democrats have offered to cut in half the $22 billion in spending that separates the White House and Congress.

Still, he predicted there would be no government shutdown along the lines of the 1995 battle between President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress. "I think everyone understands that the American people shouldn't suffer because Congress wasn't able to pass appropriations bills," Gillespie said. "I don't think that's a scenario at all."

With the legislative route all but closed, Bush has turned his attention to major international initiatives, including the Middle East peace conference he sponsored in Annapolis this week and his newfound effort to forge an accord among major economies for what to do about climate change after the Kyoto protocol that he rejected expires in 2012.

And much like Clinton did, Bush has devoted more energy lately to smaller issues that once would have struck him as too minor, using his administrative power to ease air traffic congestion at Thanksgiving, protect endangered fish, revamp health care for wounded troops and step up immigration enforcement. Gillespie said there is "more to come there," citing particularly the housing credit crunch.

Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman who took over as presidential counselor after the resignation of longtime Bush aide Dan Bartlett, said the renewed attention to Middle East peace, climate change and fiscal conservatism after seven years in which those were not seen as top priorities does not represent a last-gasp attempt to burnish the president's legacy, as many critics assert. "The president's motivated by trying to get things done," he said.

While many assume it may be too late in Bush's term to negotiate a meaningful deal between the Israelis and Palestinians that would result in a new Palestinian state, Gillespie said prospects would not be enhanced by additional time. "If you can't get it done in basically a year and a month, I'm not sure you're more likely to get it done in a year and five months or two years," he said.

With the departures of key figures such as Bartlett and Karl Rove, Gillespie has emerged as a critical player in the White House effort to revive itself after more than two years of political disasters, from the war to Hurricane Katrina to the midterm Republican election defeat. With violence now falling in Iraq, Gillespie and others in the White House believe they have regained their political footing. "There's a sense that there's been some momentum shift and a little bit of a change in that regard," he said. "Probably mostly, I'd say, attributable to the success of the surge in Iraq, which is pretty indisputable. I hope it's enduring."

But he acknowledged that Bush remains at record depths in polls. The Washington Post-ABC News poll has found his approval rating stuck at 33 percent, his all-time low, for four months straight. A new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Pressnew poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that while Americans feel better about the situation in Iraq, they have not changed their minds about wanting to pull troops out and remain deeply disillusioned with the president.

"It's going to take a while for perceptions to change," Gillespie said. "I think as people see Iraq getting better and see progress on the economic and political front in Iraq, as they see the president resisting the Democratic Congress's attempt to impose higher taxes, they'll appreciate that. It's the kind of thing that will take time. It took a long time for the president to get into low approval ratings. I think it will take a long time for him to see those approval ratings go up."

That will be even more challenging with attention shifting to the presidential race, where the first votes will be cast in less than five weeks. But counterintuitively Gillespie said it could make it easier to work on issues with Congress if the klieg lights are focused elsewhere and the political pressure eases. "In some ways, that may alleviate things," he said. "Maybe we'll be able to find some things we can get done here while the focus shifts there."

After the nominations are essentially settled, probably in February, he said there may be a new opening for the president to reengage the public. "I suspect after the nominees are determined there may be a bit of a lull," he said.

But he was restrained when asked what he hoped the White House would be able to accomplish by Jan. 20, 2009 -- "getting it right in Iraq and Afghanistan" and "keeping the economy propsering and growing." He held out some hope that significant energy legislation could be passed but was gloomy about chances for health care because "it's become such a political issue it may not be done."


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