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Does the GOP Need Energy and Medicare Reform Bills for ’04?

As Congress wrestles with two key pieces of legislation — an energy bill and fundamental reform of Medicare, including a prescription drug benefit — it’s impossible not to consider the political fallout from either passing the bills or failing to do so. [IMGCAP(1)]

Do President Bush and Republicans in Congress need to enact these two pieces of legislation, or might they actually be better off going to the voters in 2004 if House-Senate conference committees fail to produce compromise this year or even next?

At first glance, the question seems almost silly. Success, after all, is usually preferable to failure, and the president’s re-election prospects will be enhanced if voters are convinced that he and his party are working to improve people’s lives.

More specifically, seniors are an important swing constituency, and many of them express growing concern about the rising costs of prescription drugs. Seniors could be angry if the president doesn’t deliver on a drug benefit, and they might well blame the only party that controls the House, the Senate and the White House — the GOP.

Congress’ failure to pass an energy bill could also hurt the Republicans, though to a much lesser extent than prescription drugs. Many Americans remember the widespread summer blackout and are worried about paying more at the pumps and much higher natural gas prices.

But not everyone believes that the president and Republican Members of the House and Senate up for re-election in 2004 need to produce a prescription drug benefit and an energy bill to have success at the polls.

Many observers acknowledge that passing the two bills would give Republicans something to crow about, but add that neither bill will bring the near-term relief that voters are looking for.

Energy industry insiders tell me that natural gas prices are going to increase for months whether or not Congress passes an energy bill, and a drug benefit wouldn’t actually kick in for years. When voters realize that Congress has not produced a quick fix to both problems, they could be angry at the politicians in charge.

Other observers believe the essential question is the manner in which the bills might fail.

Since the GOP controls both chambers, Bush isn’t likely to get a bill that he would have to veto, which would be the worst scenario for Republicans. It is possible, however, that House and Senate Republicans might eventually produce bills that are filibustered by Senate Democrats, giving President Bush and Congressional Republicans an opportunity to blame Democrats and their interest group allies for killing the legislation.

One Republican Member of Congress notes that most Republicans in the House and Senate have already voted for a Medicare bill and an energy bill, insulating them from Democratic attacks even if legislation isn’t ultimately enacted.

But is that wishful thinking? Some Republican strategists think so.

“If that happens,” argues GOP pollster Neil Newhouse, “we are arguing process [that the Democratic filibuster is stopping a drug benefit], while they are arguing substance [that the benefit is bad]. Voters don’t care about process. It is critical that Republicans pass some sort of prescription drug benefit” before the 2004 elections.

White House political guru Karl Rove apparently agrees, at least about the need for enacting a drug benefit before the 2004 elections. He and other Republicans insist their party believes they need to take the prescription drug issue off the table now.

But if the economy rallies and produces new jobs and a sinking unemployment rate over the next year, will Bush, in particular, need a drug benefit to be re-elected? On the other hand, if the economy is still not producing jobs or the post-war situation in Iraq is still messy, won’t the president have bigger problems than his failure to deliver a drug benefit or an energy bill?

Ultimately, I come down on the side that argues that Bush needs to deliver even a limited prescription drug benefit before next year’s elections.

The president and the GOP-controlled Congress need to avoid being branded by Democrats and the national media as “do nothing” Republicans who produced a “tax cut for the rich” but couldn’t deliver on key agenda items that would benefit the country in general and seniors in particular.

Enacting a drug bill, and possibly an energy bill, would help Bush convince voters that he is focused on “kitchen table” issues, responsive and effective.

The economy and Iraq remain the top issues of the day, and they are more likely than other issues to determine Bush’s fate in 2004. But voters expect Bush and his party to deliver on prescription drugs and energy, and if they can’t, Democrats will have ammunition to try to create a Democratic wave. And that, you can be sure, is something that Bush and GOP Congressional leaders don’t want.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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