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Bush Gets Warned

Senate centrists are warning President Bush that he’s jeopardizing his future legislative agenda as the White House uses strong-arm tactics to go for broke in its efforts to win passage of a $500 billion-plus tax cut.

“It is high risk and many times it blows up and gives you the opposite result than what you desire,” Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) said of the White House’s win-at-all-costs strategy. “I think you are sort of seeing some of that here.”

In the past month, top administration officials and Bush himself have engaged in a coordinated nationwide barnstorming tour to coerce conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans to sign onto the plan. So far it has not won over any converts, and there appears be some signs of cracks in the otherwise amiable relationship the White House enjoys with most of these Senators.

“It is not a good strategy,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), a conservative Democrat whom the White House has been targeting. In addition to sending Commerce Department and Treasury Department officials to Nebraska in recent weeks to drum up support for the tax cut, the White House has also directed influential Nebraska businessmen to call Nelson directly to urge him to support the plan.

“I had the opportunity to present them with my ideas and more people agreed with me than didn’t agree with me on my position,” Nelson said. “If this is their strategy, my comment is, ‘keep it coming.’”

Nelson said the White House pressure strategy could have long-term consequences, noting that in the future he may be reluctant to immediately meet with administration officials who might be lobbying for support on other issues like the Medicare prescription drug bill.

“It is whether they get in right away or they don’t get in as early,” said Nelson, who frequently backs Bush’s legislative efforts. “That is sort of human nature.”

A senior Bush official said these Senators shouldn’t be surprised the White House is investing so much time and resources into trying to pass the tax cut.

“It makes sense that as we increase our public relations offensive, then those who are undecided or opposed to the jobs plan may feel pressure from Americans who want tax relief,” said the official.

“I think they would be liable to legitimate criticism if they didn’t do it,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) added of the White House’s aggressive efforts to promote the plan.

With the Iraq war over, attention is quickly turning back to home-front issues, as evidenced by the list of 14 legislative items that Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) unveiled on Tuesday that he said could be addressed by the chamber within the next four weeks.

Frist said passing an economic package will be the Senate’s “primary focus” in the next month, but his to-do list also includes energy legislation and a bankruptcy bill, as well as Bush’s pending judicial and executive branch nominations.

Political strategists in both parties are angling to win ownership of the domestic agenda, which is seen as a key to winning control of the Senate and the White House in the 2004 elections. For Republicans to do so, though, they must convince at least a handful of Democrats to support them on key domestic fights over the next 18 months, similar to their successful wooing of Democrats in the 2001 tax-fight battle. But it could be an uphill battle.

“He has lost my boss,” said one chief of staff to a moderate Democrat who has frequently supported Bush in the past.

And Democrats are being constantly reminded of the 2002 elections, when the White House actively targeted several Democrats who had supported Bush’s 2001 tax cut.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), a main target for defeat by the administration last year, said her Democratic colleagues should take note of her winning re-election bid as well as the losing bids of Sens. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.) and Max Cleland (D-Ga.) when deciding whether to succumb to the White House’s pressure to support a bigger tax cut this time around.

“Max Cleland voted for the tax cut, Jean Carnahan voted for the tax cut and I voted for the tax cut,” Landrieu said. “Don’t expect the president, if we support him, to support us at election time because it doesn’t work that way.”

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), a main target of the administration’s pressure campaign, said he is not at all bothered by the pressure he has received, even though Bush personally visited the Buckeye State last week to tout the plan.

“I have learned in this business as a governor and mayor, you have differences with people in the legislative body and you keep going,” he said. “I might be doing it if I was president.”

But a top Republican aide said there is lingering resentment from many GOP moderates at the way the White House has tried to force Senators to support a plan not everyone agrees with.

“The concern is there has been a ‘my way or the highway approach’ that has chosen to push the White House point of view along without talking with or working with those who have deeply principled views,” said the GOP aide. “With the Senate this closely divided the White House needs to work on engagement rather than just trying to force something through on a party line vote.”

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