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Bush Steps Up Hill Lobbying

Focus Is on Domestic Agenda

Even as Congress debates President Bush’s controversial proposal to increase U.S. troops in Iraq, the White House has been quietly negotiating with key lawmakers to try to advance some of its leading domestic priorities with the hope of rounding out a legacy now defined by an unpopular war.

Bush has dispatched Cabinet officials to Capitol Hill in recent weeks to kick off talks with both Democratic and Republican Senators and House Members on immigration reform, health care legislation, energy proposals, No Child Left Behind reauthorization and Social Security and entitlement revisions. The campaign began in earnest after Bush’s Jan. 23 State of the Union address.

A knowledgeable White House official this week said the administration is lobbying lawmakers more intensely than in recent years, not only because Democrats now control the Congressional agenda but because the window is narrowing to pass Bush’s priorities with just two years remaining in his second term. Bush officials also recognize that this year is their best hope to advance controversial bills such as immigration reform, given the politics of the 2008 presidential election already is taking hold.

“It’s a harder environment, and there is less goodwill,” the White House official acknowledged. “Therefore you have to do more outreach, more hand-holding. And, you don’t get as much for it.”

Many of the now-majority party Democrats in Congress remain skeptical of the administration, especially after six years of virtual neglect on legislative deal making. And while some Congressional Democrats say any increase in outreach by Bush is welcome, they have yet to be convinced that the White House truly is negotiating in good faith.

“They are beginning to relearn the art of compromise,” one Democratic Senate aide said. “But don’t expect Capitol Hill to throw open its arms. Bush has burned too many bridges with Democrats.”

The obvious skepticism doesn’t appear to be deterring the Bush administration, however.

Among those spearheading the discussions with the Hill are Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on immigration reform; Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters on energy and climate change initiatives; Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman on budget and entitlement and Social Security reform; and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and National Economic Council Director Al Hubbard on health care initiatives.

“They get an A for effort, especially in the last few months,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “I’ve had more Cabinet members in my office since the first of the year than in the last four years, which I appreciate.”

Sources indicate the administration’s outreach has touched both sides of the Capitol, but given the political landscape on the Hill, the Senate may provide a better opportunity than the House for White House initiatives given the compromising nature of the chamber, and the narrow political margins that could provide better opportunities for a deal.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Bush officials have a short period of time to work with Democrats and advance a truly bipartisan domestic agenda this Congress. Wyden has been leading a group of Democratic and Republican Senators trying to negotiate with the White House on reforming the nation’s health care system, a move he acknowledges will require tough compromise on both sides.

“There’s a real window between now and say late October for bipartisan work on key domestic issues,” Wyden said. “But the White House is going to have to move and Democrats and Republicans are open to it.”

Bush spent a large share of his annual State of the Union address on his domestic agenda, a break from recent years when he has focused almost entirely on the war on terrorism and the Iraq War. At the time, the administration got mixed reviews from Congress, with some calling his proposals dead on arrival and others offering hope for success.

Even so, the focus on the home front did little to distract a Congress almost entirely centered on the state of Iraq, and Bush’s plan to deploy 21,500 more troops to the region. Bush’s public approval ratings have continued to hover in the 30 percent range, largely because of his policies related to the conflict, and even members of his own party have criticized his Iraq policies.

The White House official said that even with Iraq dominating the headlines and Congress’ attention of late, “the Cabinet can quietly work this other stuff.”

Jim Manley, spokesman to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), acknowledged that Cabinet secretaries have been making the rounds on the Hill, but said the president has yet to follow through and play an active enough role working with Congress and its new leadership. Manley said while Bush may have a chance to move some priorities like immigration reform, he will have a tough time finding a welcome audience for some of his other proposals such as health care and Social Security reform.

“There are different conversations going on over different areas, but there’s no significant increase in overall outreach to the Hill,” Manley said.

Reid was one of a handful of Senators and House Members who went to the White House on Wednesday afternoon to meet with Bush — a session at which Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) planned to discuss the president’s proposed supplemental spending request for the war, as well as the future of immigration reform and the Democrats’ technology and innovation agenda. Reid also was expected to make clear that he wants and expects Bush to provide regular face time with Hill leaders, and wants substantive meetings that invite an exchange of ideas, Manley said.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), ranking member on the Budget Committee, said he doesn’t know what degree of success Bush will have for his domestic agenda this Congress, but he agreed officials “certainly have been communicating.” He said he’s had several White House Cabinet and sub-cabinet secretary meetings in recent weeks, and also has been engaged in talks on entitlement reform with the administration and Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

“Efforts are being made, I know that,” Gregg said.

At least on the Bush administration’s hopes for overhauling Social Security and entitlement programs this Congress, there may be a heavy lift ahead. Despite the recent outreach, Conrad in a recent hearing with Portman expressed frustration over the state of the White House talks, saying “there will not be a conclusion because then you are only asking one side fundamentally to compromise.”

“If both sides aren’t prepared to compromise, there will not be resolution during this administration, and that would be a tragedy,” Conrad told Portman.

But Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said that at least one of Bush’s proposals is likely to move this year, saying he believes immigration reform — with the White House’s recent lobbying — may have its best shot yet at winning the Congressional nod. Martinez, who on Tuesday was en route to a meeting with Chertoff on immigration, said the administration’s newfound attention to its domestic priorities gives him confidence that “we can pull together on a common vision for where we want to go.”

“They are more engaged than they have been at any time than they were last year,” Martinez said. “They are out and about.”

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