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Education, tax cuts top Bush's Washington agenda

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President-elect George W. Bush will arrive in the nation's capital armed with a policy agenda he forged on the campaign trail. But faced with a Congress that is split evenly along party lines, Bush may walk a twisted political path as he attempts to turn that agenda into legislative reality.


In this story:

Laying legislative groundwork

First priority: education

Tax cuts on the table

Health care on the horizon

Campaign finance, election overhauls



Every new president spends the first days of his administration laying out a legislative road map. Bush has said that education would be his first priority, with his $1.3 trillion tax cut not far behind, followed by proposals to overhaul the nation's health care system. And if Congress expeditiously passes legislation that would ban late-term abortion, the president-elect has signaled he would sign that too.

Although he lost the popular vote to Democratic rival Al Gore, Bush asserts that now that the election is resolved, the American people have given his legislative agenda a stamp of approval.

"I believe I'm standing here because I campaigned on issues that people heard," Bush said after a mid-December meeting with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders in Washington. "And one of those issues is tax relief; another is education reform; another is health care reform; another military, making sure our military is not only strong today, but modern for the future."

Laying legislative groundwork

To ease his journey through the halls of Congress, Bush has met with both Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, emphasizing bipartisanship, talking up tax cuts and discussing education and social reform initiatives with key players.

"You're going to see the president-elect do in Washington what he so successfully did in Texas, which is work well with people in both parties, bring people together," predicted Bush transition spokesman Ari Fleischer.

And for now, House and Senate Democratic leaders are throwing their support behind the president-elect, offering public praise and a promise to work together.

"Bipartisanship isn't an option anymore. It is a requirement," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said in a cautionary message aimed at Bush and congressional Republicans. "The American people have divided responsibility for leadership right down the middle."

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Key players

Republicans hold only a slim majority in the House of Representatives -- 221 Republicans, 212 Democrats and two independent members -- and the Senate is evenly divided. That means that Bush might need to perform some political gymnastics to woo the few Democrats he needs while not alienating his conservative base.

"He ought to be bold," said conservative activist Gary Bauer of Bush's legislative agenda. "Bill Clinton came out of the starting gates signing executive orders and pushing his liberal agenda."

But Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin cautioned Bush to be prudent, saying, "If he acts right now to pass something along the lines of what he suggested in the campaign, that will send the message that this is a very partisan Republican who is prepared to put ideology ahead of consensus."

The question is, will the 107th Congress comply?

"I know that we can come together on an agenda early that will have bipartisan support, but more importantly, will have the enthusiastic support of the American people," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi. "The things they care about, we must work together on. We will find a way to do it."

"Bipartisanship isn't an option anymore. It is a requirement."
— Sen. Tom Daschle

Lott said that he would recommend that Bush stick to "fundamentals" when it comes to mapping a legislative agenda.

"Focus on two or three really important things like education, like Medicare reform and prescription drugs, perhaps even get something started on Social Security," Lott advised the president-elect.

First priority: education

The centerpiece of a Bush administration education bill would likely be aimed at granting states greater flexibility in setting education standards, prescribing federal intervention only when local schools fail to meet those standards.

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Kennedy
Sen. Edward Kennedy  

Also on the table are Republican-favored education proposals like school vouchers, character education and charter schools. Bush wants to spend some $300 million on charter schools, establish education savings accounts and triple federal funding for "character education."

Bush has said he would spend $5 billion on a "Reading First" literacy program aimed at ensuring children can read by the third grade.

In an effort to find common ground on education, the president-elect met with a bipartisan contingent of congressional lawmakers -- although key Democratic players in education such as Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, were not among them.

"I'm hopeful that we can find a way to pass legislation that will do the following things," Bush said at a news conference shortly after the meeting ended. "One, make sure that no child is left behind. Two, find a way to empower local schools, and three, make accountability a factor."

"We had a really good beginning," Bush said of the group, which included Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, chair of the Senate Labor, Education and Workforce Committee; and Rep. George Miller, D-California.

The group discussed vouchers, special education, literacy programs among other initiatives, and Jeffords said he was coming away from the meeting "very elevated in feeling."

But once the issue gets to Congress, the voucher idea in particular may be met with resistance. The Democrats have long argued that vouchers undermine public schools, and say the public largely does not support the concept, citing several failed state referendums in the 2000 election.

Tax cuts on the table

Nearly one year ago, Bush unveiled a 10-year tax cut plan that included an across-the-board cut in income tax rates, a full repeal of the so-called "marriage penalty" and estate tax, saying it would remove the "toll gate to the road to middle class in America."

A Bush tax cut bill would also include tax credits of up to $2,000 to help low-income families pay for health care; the expansion of tax-free education savings accounts from $500 to $5,000 per student; the creation of "individual saving accounts," which give banks tax credits to match contributions by low-income earners; and an increased deduction for those who make charitable donations.

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Hastert
House Speaker Dennis Hastert  

Although the tax cut grew to $1.3 trillion over the course of the campaign, Bush insists that passing it will be among his first priorities, an action that may not find full support among the more politically savvy members of Congress.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, said in a recent interview with CNN that passing Bush's tax cut piecemeal would make it a much easier sell to the public. Republicans found widespread support when they pushed a repeal of the so-called "marriage penalty" tax, as well as the estate tax, both of which were vetoed by President Clinton.

Even Democrats, many of whom supported some of the targeted tax cuts, said they could support a go-slow approach.

"We don't have a problem doing them one at a time," said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri. "What you have to be aware of in that case is when you get done, what do they add up to? What you can't do is get to a huge number and then blow the deficit and the budget by simply saying you're doing them one at a time."

But moving past the repeals of the marriage penalty and estate tax, the philosophical differences between the two parties are profound. Democrats are drawing up plans for a tax package of their own that includes proposals touted by Gore during the campaign, including tax credits for college tuition, long term care and day care.

Health care on the horizon

In the previous Congress, Democrats and Republicans failed to hash out their differences in the patients' bill of rights legislation, primarily whether a patient could be allowed to sue an HMO over a denial of care.

Bush may seek to pass health care legislation early on, including a prescription drug benefit for Medicare participants and a patients' bill of rights that would include a limited right to sue HMOs.

The president-elect's prescription drug plan, he has said, would be based in the private sector with additional subsidies for low-income seniors.

And he may seek the help of Sen. John Breaux, R-Louisiana, who led a bipartisan commission on Medicare reform during the 106th Congress. Breaux met with Bush recently to discuss Medicare reform, among other issues.

Bush also may try to push through medical savings accounts -- a favorite Republican issue -- as well as health credits for low income, uninsured Americans families that do not qualify for Medicaid.

Campaign finance, election overhauls

Several lawmakers are calling for election overhauls in the aftermath of the Florida recount, and Bush could support such legislation as a conciliatory gesture.

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But he also could find himself confronted by his GOP primary nemesis, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has already said he will push a campaign finance bill through the Senate. McCain says he has the support of nearly 60 senators -- the number needed to cut off a filibuster in the upper chamber.

Throughout the presidential campaign, Bush said he would support the bipartisan campaign finance bill if it included a "paycheck protection" provision that would require written consent from union members before dues could be used for political purposes.

The legislation McCain is backing, co-sponsored by Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, does not contain such a provision.

Cheney said campaign finance reform is only part of the problem that must be addressed.

"After the Florida recount process, there is going to be great interest in complete election reform. People are going to want to sit down and look at the whole spectrum of how we pick our president, a part of which is campaign finance reform," he said.


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