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Bush Unlikely to Push Big Policy Agenda in ’08

Don’t expect any bold legislative ideas from the Bush administration in 2008, a year Congressional observers are painting as one likely to be marked by partisan gridlock and few legislative accomplishments with Democratic leaders focusing on winning the White House.

At best, President Bush can hope for incremental advances — such as modernizing accounting standards or other items on his competitiveness agenda — and preservation of his previous legislative successes, Democratic and Republican insiders say.

White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore declined to comment on Bush’s 2008 legislative agenda. She said it would be “a bit premature” to discuss the president’s goals until they are laid out in his State of the Union address in January.

Pointing to the mix of bills from 2007 that still require action, including the State Children’s Health Insurance Program reauthorization and energy reform, she quipped, “We would like for them to get through this year’s to-do list before we talk about next year.”

But observers on both sides of the aisle agree that with a presidential election around the corner, the administration will most likely spend its final year trying to protect the legislative victories it won when Republicans controlled Congress.

“Next year is going to be nasty, nasty, nasty. Smoke and mirrors and B.S.,” said one prominent GOP lobbyist. “You’re going to see every last waking hour next year being driven by the political reality that it is an election year. They don’t get a damn thing done they don’t absolutely have to get done. That’s just the way it is.”

In the meantime, Bush “does not have enough juice to successfully move anything of consequence without the support of the Democrats,” who have “absolutely no intention of giving this White House the opportunity to accomplish anything, even if is one of their own ideas,” the source said.

Joel Johnson of Glover Park Group, an all-Democratic lobbying and public affairs firm, said a major reason that Congress will get little done in 2008 is because Bush “has shown no interest” in making deals with Democrats.

What makes matters worse for Bush, he said, is that by late spring, Republicans who are up for re-election will be less interested in aligning themselves with an unpopular president and more interested in making deals with Democrats to try to pass bills that they can tout while campaigning in their districts.

Business Roundtable President John Castellani noted that Congress and Bush will have to work together on a handful of “can’t wait, near-term problems,” such as reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is set to expire in February.

Beyond the third week of February, however, caucuses and primary elections will redirect most of Congress’ attention to their candidates running for president. “Once that starts, very little is done outside of it,” Castellani said. “It’s hard to do any great new initiatives. They’ll finish up what they’ve already started on.”

Another obstacle for Bush is the backlog of bills from 2007 that will spill over into 2008, said Richard Tarplin, president of the bipartisan lobbying firm Timmons and Co. The need to address time-sensitive issues such as SCHIP and FISA will trump his efforts to make headway on some of his key priorities, such as reauthorizing No Child Left Behind legislation or enacting more free-trade agreements.

Ultimately, the president’s agenda “is one of counterpunching and one of trying to implement fiscal discipline through the use of veto and the use of the bully pulpit,” added Bob Rusbuldt, CEO of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America.

The political reality, he said, is that the Bush administration will spend most of its time “reacting to what Congress does or does not do.”

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