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Despite Criticisms, GOP Senate Serves Bush ’04 Lemonade

GOP leaders and moderates in the Senate have faced a crossfire of criticism from seemingly all sides over the past few weeks, but on the two big domestic issues this year — taxes and a prescription drug benefit under Medicare — the Republican-controlled Senate has pulled President Bush’s chestnuts out of the fire.

In each case, the Senate has blocked an ill-conceived White House initiative, endorsed by the House, and produced a more politically palatable alternative that has ultimately been embraced by the administration.

[IMGCAP(1)] The president’s $726 billion tax cut, which contained the complete elimination of the tax on dividends, was sliced to a much more manageable level. The final $350 billion package is still a considerable tax cut, and the president is both praising it and citing it as evidence that he is working to revitalize the economy.

Democrats are, of course, attacking the lower figure as a “giveaway” to “the rich,” but that’s nothing new. While Democratic partisans will buy their party’s line, the attacks on the White House are not likely to open serious new wounds on the president and his party unless the national economy is in worse shape next fall.

On prescription drugs, the White House has backed away from forcing seniors into some sort of preferred-provider or HMO plan, instead opting to give the same benefits to seniors regardless of the kind of plan they choose.

For conservatives, most of whom much prefer that the administration encourage seniors to switch to private plans, Bush’s new position on prescription drug coverage is disappointing. They’d probably prefer that he stick to his ideological guns.

But politically, it’s a no-brainer. The Senate’s approach is much likelier than the president’s to be enacted, and it is much tougher for the Democrats to demonize. The Senate Finance Committee has taken a White House proposal that was DOA and remade it in such a way that even Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has nice things to say about it.

By taking a Democratic issue off the table and delivering on a promise, Bush strengthens himself for 2004. That’s one reason why some Democrats believe it would not be wise for their party to support any prescription drug benefits bill.

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has already ruled out a filibuster, severely limiting his party’s leverage.

While some Democrats argue that prescription drugs has not proved to be the effective political issue that they once hoped, Republican strategists believe that passage of a drug benefit, when combined with the “No Child Left Behind” education initiative and tax cuts, gives the president all of the accomplishments he needs to make his case for a second term, providing the economy

doesn’t contract once again.

They are probably correct.

Whatever the president’s failings were in terms of delivering on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fundamental Medicare or Social Security reform or the elimination of double taxation on dividends, the Bush-Cheney campaign will be able to cite significant accomplishments in the single most important area to conservatives (taxes) and on two of the top issues to independents and moderates (education and health care).

For its part, the House has acted predictably on these three legislative areas, staking out a position considerably to the Senate’s right. But the House has ultimately shown a pragmatic side, joining with the president in moving toward the Senate’s positions.

It now looks as if the president is going to come out looking like a winner on both the 2003 tax cut and prescription drug coverage even though, in each case, the final legislation is light years from what Bush initially proposed.

Is this good White House strategy or simply dumb luck? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Elections are about results, not process.

While Democrats try to undercut the results by pointing out the distance between Bush’s proposals and the ultimate language, most voters pay little attention to the ins and outs of the legislative process. Their concern is with the outcome and its effect on their lives.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) took his share of criticism when he botched negotiations on the Bush tax-cut proposal by cutting a deal with GOP Senate moderates. And two of those Senators, George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), took heavy abuse from conservatives for demanding a smaller tax cut.

But at the end of the day, the GOP Senators who had a hand in forcing the president and the House to pull back on some of their more ambitious proposals actually did Bush and the Republican Party a big favor.

Rothenberg Political Report

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