News Column

New Congress is a New Start For Bush Agenda

December 26, 2002

Judy Keen

WASHINGTON -- President Bush will move quickly next year to advance an agenda friendly to business, but changes in Social Security won't be an early priority.

Bush will propose limits on class-action lawsuits and on awards in medical malpractice cases, White House officials say.

He also will seek new tax breaks for businesses and revive his plan to expand oil exploration in the USA, including drilling in the Alaskan wilderness.

Those objectives have been on Bush's agenda since he took office, but administration officials revealed for the first time specific plans to accomplish them when Congress returns in January.

The proposals, all priorities for business, have a better chance of passage in the new Congress because Republicans will control both chambers. Until the Nov. 5 elections, Democrats controlled the Senate. Democrats still retain enough power to delay or thwart many of Bush's initiatives.

Despite the hospitable climate on Capitol Hill, Bush won't press in the first months of 2003 for swift votes on Social Security reforms. Bush promised during the 2000 campaign to give younger workers the option of putting a portion of their Social Security taxes in stocks through individual investment accounts.

A senior Bush adviser says that Social Security reform is "a difficult issue, and the appetite on the Hill is probably in question."

Although he's holding off for now, Bush remains committed to making changes in Social Security, aides say. Prospects for reform seemed to improve in last month's elections when several Republican candidates who endorsed his proposals won despite rivals' criticism.

White House officials are discussing whether to adjust their priorities in the wake of the controversy over racially insensitive remarks made by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., which forced Lott to resign as Senate majority leader. Lingering concerns about the long-term impact on the GOP may prompt the administration to consider more tax cuts for low-income Americans. Bush also may rethink some judicial nominations, culling out conservatives with records that could offend minorities.

Planning for Bush's 2003 agenda began the day after Congress adjourned. Details are still being debated and refined, but these proposals are taking shape:

* Energy.
Legislation calling for more domestic oil production and more nuclear power died this fall amid disagreement over drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Instead of resuscitating that broad bill, the administration plans to break it up and work for passage of its individual components. Senate Republicans may attach a provision allowing drilling in ANWR to a budget-related bill that needs a simple majority of 51 votes for passage. That would negate the threat of a filibuster by opponents, which requires 60 votes to overcome.

* Liability limits.
Bush will propose allowing defendants in class-action lawsuits filed in more than one state to move the cases to federal courts. Business leaders contend that some state courts, which now hear such cases, are too generous in awarding damages. Bush also will try to limit awards in medical malpractice lawsuits, a priority for insurance companies and doctors groups. Bush supports limiting damages for pain and suffering, which now are unrestricted, to $250,000. He didn't even attempt the changes when Democrats ran the Senate.

* Health care reform.
Bush is expected to say in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28 that repairing Medicare is a top goal. He'll propose overall changes in programs and eligibility intended to make the government-run health insurance for seniors more stable and add prescription-drug benefits. Specifics still are being worked out, but Bush "wants to get it done, and he wants to get it done early," a senior White House official says. "We've got to strengthen the system, particularly if we want to provide a drug benefit."

* Taxes.
Bush will ask Congress to make permanent the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut passed in 2001. It is set to expire in 2010. He may seek to accelerate the gradual increases in the per-child tax credit. The credit is now $600 and is scheduled to climb to $1,000 in 2010. To spur investments, he's considering cutting taxes on dividends paid to shareholders and allowing companies to write off capital investments more quickly.

Bush's emphasis on domestic issues is meant to demonstrate that he's not neglecting concerns at home while fighting the war on terrorism and preparing for a possible war with Iraq, aides say.

"Bush wants some victories on domestic priorities to build momentum," says a Republican strategist who advises the White House. "They know that when voters start thinking about the next election, they'll calculate what he's accomplished for them."



Source: © Copyright 2002 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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