• U.S.

Bush’s Two Sides

11 minute read
John F. Dickerson/Washington

When members of Congress pay a visit to the White House these days to talk with the President about HMO reform, the lawmakers are never sure which George W. Bush will show up. Will it be the distracted Bush of a June 27 meeting with moderate Republicans–the Bush who seemed to be doodling on his notepad and parroting the talking points of his aides? Or will it be the other fellow, the impassioned advocate of a July 11 sitdown, whose nuanced arguments surprised some people who had also been at the June meeting? The first time, “he was just going through the motions,” says Representative Peter King of New York. But two weeks later, he “was a different person.” When King challenged Bush’s commitment to passing a patients’ bill of rights, the President didn’t waiver. He vowed again to veto the Democratic version if it reached his desk, but insisted he wanted a bill he could sign. “I wouldn’t be wasting everyone’s time,” Bush said. “This is in play. We can win this. The votes are there if we can get them. But we’ve got to work.” Convinced that only the President’s version had a chance to become law, King switched sides. He is backing Bush.

The President needs about 20 Peter Kings this week–and as many convincing performances from himself–if he hopes to change the momentum in the patients’ rights debate. The Senate has already passed a Democratic bill that gives Americans broad new powers to sue health providers who deny them proper care in both federal and state court. The House version of that bill has 10 to 20 more supporters than the much more restrictive measure that Bush favors, which started out barring suits in state court, where juries often hand fat damage awards to plaintiffs. House G.O.P. leaders put off a vote last week when they realized that Bush’s bill would lose. But Bush still thinks he can change enough minds to win. If he gets close, House leaders will hold a vote this week.

Patients’ rights, in other words, is the first big test in the second chapter of Bush’s presidency–the part of the story where the hero gets tested. In the first six months of his term, Bush’s biggest wins–tax cuts and education reform–were issues he grasped with an almost theological passion. But with the Senate now in Democratic hands and the House roiled by newly energized G.O.P. moderates willing to buck their President, Bush faces a coming wave of battles that he can’t easily win. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle will be pushing a Medicare prescription-drug benefit and a minimum-wage increase. And the House moderates, who last week forced Bush to abandon his attempt to lower standards for arsenic in drinking water, will soon have him scratching for votes on trade, energy and government-spending bills. He won’t win over the moderates by enunciating broad principles; he’ll have to debate them point by point and negotiate line by line. The determined, dealmaking Bush will have to show up every time.

He’s showing up now. As each wavering House member listens to the President make his case on the patients’ rights bill, Bush cannot afford to leave misimpressions. Lately he has been trying his best to apply direct pressure. In House majority leader Dennis Hastert’s office on Thursday, Bush pitched wavering members of the New Jersey delegation. Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood, chief sponsor of the version Bush can’t stand, was finally called in that day for his first face-to-face chat in the Oval Office. Bush phoned him again Friday. After working out what Bush thought might be a compromise–allowing patients to sue their HMOs in state court but under federal guidelines–the President phoned Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, the godfather of the opposition. “I really want to sign something,” Bush said. “I hope you won’t dismiss this out of hand.” Kennedy and his team did dismiss it, but Bush is still in there selling.

So far, his game doesn’t conjure memories of Lyndon Baines Johnson. But the White House never promised that this President would ride herd on Congress like L.B.J. did. Instead, Bush was supposed to succeed with the congenial approach that served him so well in Texas. His charm and people skills were supposed to survive the trip North, bust gridlock, untie policy knots like Social Security reform. His aides are still besotted. “I just wish you could watch him,” one of them gushes about Bush’s work this week.

People are watching. The patients’ rights outcome will determine whether Bush’s frequent public veto threats amount to a smart negotiating ploy or a public relations blunder. Will he prevail or be seen as a servant of the HMOs? Democrats, of course, hope Bush fails to find the votes he needs, because that would sap his political power and prove he can’t use the Republican House as a bulwark against the Democratic Senate. Republicans see the battle as a test of how much air support they can expect from Bush in the fights to come. Is he willing to open every window, try every angle, scamper up every avenue to win the close ones? “It gets tougher,” says Republican Representative Chris Shays, a sponsor of the campaign-finance-reform bill that Bush opposes, which is likely to resurface this fall. “All the issues that we knew would be a problem are coming up now.”

It has always been naive to assume that nicknames and bear hugs would be enough to move legislation, but when Bush has truly engaged–and compromised–as he did on taxes and education, he has been effective. When he has merely repeated a list of principles and freeze-dried phrases, as he did to promote his energy plan and campaign-finance reform, he has been less so. And during the patients’ rights fight, the culmination of six years of bloody gridlock, Bush has been trying to make the case by looking into the soul of those who gather around his Cabinet Room table. They are looking right back, questioning his sincerity, demanding signs of good faith and asking after favors. Moderates in particular are suspicious that Bush’s charm is meant to obscure his true intent, which in this case might mean doing nothing at all.

Sixty-eight House Republicans supported the broad patients’ rights bill two years ago, but Bush says he’ll veto it because he thinks it will raise costs and increase the number of uninsured. When he tried the veto gambit in the Senate last month, his counselor, Karen Hughes, advised against it. Be for the people not the corporations, she pleaded. Bush ignored her, and his threat fell flat: nobody knuckled under. So now when he meets with the undecided, they want to know if he really means it. The question comes up at every meeting, forcing Bush to show some spine. “I saw how Bill Clinton used the veto,” he told a small group of undecided lawmakers last Thursday. “The President has the final word. If I use it, this will become about the little people vs. the trial lawyers.”

The message that Bush means it seems to be getting through this time. “We are trying to feel out the President,” says a senior House Republican member who is voting with Bush. “Many of us, when we heard the veto threat, weren’t convinced he was serious, because from Day One he has been trying to get this off his plate. But I’m convinced now that there is a line in the sand. I’m not sure where it is, but it’s there.”

If the veto threat pays off, it will be a vindication for White House strategist Karl Rove and legislative liaison Nick Calio, who were among its chief advocates. They were the targets of big-time sniping last week. Party elders noticed that Calio was out of town last month, on the eve of the disastrous Senate vote on HMO reform, and Rove was with Bush in Europe last week when the House vote was thought to be just days away. “It just doesn’t make any sense,” says a senior Washington Republican who wonders if Rove is spread too thin.

Of late, Rove has been working harder to tend to the Hill–and he had better work harder still. Bush’s veto threat helped pick up a few votes, but not the roughly 20 he needs. Undecideds Chris Smith and Marge Roukema, who listened to the President’s pitch one more time in the Speaker’s office last Thursday, still were not convinced. If Norwood can be flipped, the White House hopes he’ll bring the majority of undecideds along with him. But he rejected the most recent White House offers.

If Bush fails to close the deal, it may be because some legislators appear to bore him. To win a member sometimes means letting them drone on and on. The President’s fidgety nature has trouble during those kinds of legislative jawing sessions. So when Duncan Hunter of California hijacks a meeting to talk about defense, Bush is liable to turn off. When Roukema lectures him on HMOs that “practice bottom-line medicine,” Bush wears his impatience like a neon top hat. To move more minds, Bush is focusing hard on lobbying–while he and his team whittle away at his position on how much freedom patients should have to sue their doctors. But compromising too much could send a signal that he can be rolled.

The President wouldn’t have to sweat so hard if he hadn’t started so late, argue Republicans on the Hill who are disappointed with the uneven White House performance. “It’s like in and out,” a senior House G.O.P. leadership aide says. “They’re in, they’re out, they’re in, they’re out. You’re never quite sure where they are.” Bush unveiled an energy plan and then disappeared, they complain. On campaign finance, he didn’t lend a hand. Requests for protection of budget items are mocked as mere pork–a point Representative Saxby Chambliss, whose Georgia district may lose its B-1 bomber contingent, raised with Bush in one of their meetings. “Mr. President, I’d like for you to come to Georgia next week,” Chambliss half joked. “We’ll send a B-1 up here to get you. Now if you want to talk about patients’ bill of rights, we’ll talk.”

The complaint is bipartisan. For all of Bush’s promises to reach across the aisle, says California Democrat Ellen Tauscher, he hasn’t done so. Though Tauscher backs Bush on taxes, trade and missile defense, the response has been underwhelming. “I felt like the ugly duckling at the prom,” she says with a laugh. Bush, she believes, “is running against me in ’02.” It’s easy for Bush to have Ted Kennedy to the White House, Tauscher says–his seat isn’t ripe for a Republican takeover. “The centrists are a different bag, and Bush has yet to really deal with us.”

The White House swats away such complaints with a disdain that isn’t likely to improve relations. “It’s crap!” snaps a senior Administration official. Every member of Congress wants special treatment, the official says, and if you deploy the President too often, he wastes his time and loses his power to convert. “You don’t get the President involved at the start,” says a White House official. “You set the table and insert him at key points in the process to get key things done, to make key calls to certain people [to tell them it’s] time to get off the dime, time to hold hands and jump.”

As Bush took Chambliss golfing Friday–a rare Dubya indulgence in that favorite Clinton lobbying tactic–he must have known he was running out of time to pull off what would be a miraculous legislative victory. House G.O.P. vote counters are quite gloomy about his prospects. “When they pulled the vote back this week, it meant Tom [DeLay] couldn’t do it,” says a House veteran referring to the majority whip’s famous ability to cajole. “It means he won’t be able to do it next week either.” The White House has a different tally. It thinks it will win this week. It has either vastly overestimated Bush’s powers of persuasion, or the President is about to exceed expectations one more time.

–With reporting by Matthew Cooper and Douglas Waller/Washington

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