The Persian Gulf War will dominate President Bush's second State of the Union address Tuesday, administration officials and GOP congressional leaders advising the White House said, including a broad outline of Bush's view of a post-war Middle East.
Officials said that Bush's comments on domestic policy would depend on events in the gulf. But while drafts of the speech include large domestic policy sections, there are few initiatives beyond banking reform and some energy proposals that have been worked on for months.
Bush's advisers have deliberately written far more than the president can deliver in the address, giving him options for determining its final shape at the last possible moment.
A senior administration official described the address, in which presidents normally outline their legislative agenda for the year, as having a large chunk now devoted to "broad outlines" of how security arrangements in the Middle East might evolve when the war is over.
Bush, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and others have talked from the outset of the Gulf crisis last summer of the need to find ways both to ensure Iraq does not regain its military strength and to ensure a lasting peace in the region. Although he has said the United States might be willing to participate in a U.N. peace-keeping force if one is established for the region after the war is over, Bush has said he intends that U.S. troops now in the gulf will leave when the conflict is over.
Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who heads the Republican Senate Campaign Committee and has discussed the address with White House officials, said Bush "will seek to go beyond the simple recounting of how we got there and what we're doing. You'll see an outline of where we go from here" in Middle East policy.
Gramm also predicted a "strong statement on domestic policy," but even some White House officials called that "wishful thinking."
The president is expected to resurrect the main element of his 1990 economic package -- a reduction in the capital gains tax rate -- as part of an anti-recession package.
But White House officials suggested this week that Bush would make the issue rhetorical rather than real in the face of strong opposition to the tax break by Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady and other key players in the administration. "Not many of us have the stomach for a fight over this," one official said.
A senior official said the White House is considering dropping its agreement with the Democrats last year that showed the tax cut losing revenue and, instead, return to its original "scoring" to show it gaining revenue by spurring economic growth. But the official cautioned that "this has been in and out of the works so much that we won't know until Tuesday" how serious the capital gains cut proposal is.
Bush has been forced to give up on the capital gains cut two years in a row and his effort to cling to it last year was part of a yearlong political fight over the budget that threw the White House on the defensive and caused weeks of tense negotiations before an agreement was reached.
The White House effort to avoid a fight this year by rhetorically embracing a capital gains cut but not pushing it may not succeed, congressional Republicans and some White House officials said, if House Republicans press for it.
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) is heading a group of more than 100 Republicans who wrote the president last week asking his support for their economic growth package, which includes cutting the tax on capital gains to 15 percent, reducing the Social Security payroll tax by 2 percentage points, and expanding Individual Retirement Accounts to allow their use in purchasing homes.
The White House considered, but rejected, some of the same proposals for its own package. One senior administration official said of the House GOP package pushed by conservatives, "For all the talk of a cease-fire with the House conservatives, their plan could crystallize the issue and pull us into a battle with the Democrats even if we don't want one."
Reflecting the administration's long-running debate over the "new paradigm" -- a collection of ideas aimed at providing to the middle class and poor more economic power and direct access to government programs -- Bush's address now is scheduled to support programs aimed at "increasing opportunity." Among those are programs to provide parents with vouchers that would allow them to "buy" education at schools of their choice, and to increase funding for housing programs that help tenants buy their apartments or homes.
Bush plans to push his own version of civil rights legislation this year as well, and some officials said he planned to combine it with other elements in an "omnibus" package that includes educational and economic opportunities for the disadvantaged. The point, one official said, is to tell the nation "that we have moved beyond the traditional civil rights concerns to a period where economic opportunity is the most viable route to equality." He will also discuss increased help for low-income women and infants and perhaps a $200 million program to reduce infant mortality.
One senior official said yesterday that much of the domestic content of the president's address amounts to "laying down some markers" that will lead to the direction the White House wants to go in areas such as crime, civil rights, education and economic growth when the gulf war is over.
The official acknowledged that in the midst of war, "there's not that much passion" for the ideological debates that were taking place within the administration only a few months ago.
As Gramm put it this week, "The basic makeup of the speech will be dictated by events that occur between now and then in the Middle East. The number one issue in the public mind and the only issue in Washington is the Persian Gulf."