Bush’s promises: He’s sure to try on taxes, Social Security, others – but success far from sure
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush has a long list of promises to keep, and even with an expanded Republican majority in Congress, it’s unlikely he can have them all.
His platform is ambitious: Remake the tax code, overhaul Social Security, stabilize the mess in Iraq. None will be easy.
Bush acknowledged as much Thursday.
“I’ve been wisened to the ways of Washington,” he said at a news conference. Still, he confidently said he planned to spend the political capital he had won on Election Day: “I came here to get some things done.”
In campaigning for a second term, Bush promised to make large tax cuts permanent, cap jury awards in medical malpractice cases and drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
That’s just at home. Abroad, he faces the difficult reality of Iraq, where he’s declared that freedom is on the march even as a violent insurgency claims U.S. and Iraqi lives. He’s looked ahead to elections in January as the next step toward democracy despite doubts that the balloting will come off peacefully.
His hand in Congress has been strengthened with more Republicans – now 55 of 100 – in the Senate, and a larger majority in the House. While House Democrats have had no power in recent years, those in the Senate have shown they can stand together to stop legislation, using Senate rules that require 60 votes to end debate. Republicans are still short of a filibuster-proof majority.
But Senate Democrats will have to decide how to use the limited power they have. Their liberal base will want them to fight a slew of GOP proposals, but doing so could risk alienating the majority of voters who re-elected Bush.
Republicans know that, said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. His expectation:
“I’m sure what they’re going to do is say to the Democrats, ‘Look, here’s our idea of bipartisanship. We present the programs and you vote for them. And if you don’t, we’ll use the presidential bully pulpit and our megaphones and … we’ll portray you as the villains. You will suffer the fate of Tom Daschle.”‘ Daschle is the Democratic leader defeated this week in South Dakota.
On the other hand, moderate Republicans might break with Bush on some issues, including some lawmakers concerned about the growing deficit who might balk at proposals that cost a lot of money.
Several of Bush’s proposals are expensive.
One of his priorities is an overhaul of Social Security, headed toward insolvency as the baby boomers begin retiring and start taking money out of the system rather than paying into it. Bush wants to let younger workers put some of their Social Security taxes into private accounts that could invest in the stock market and perhaps earn more money for retirement. But diverting money to private accounts creates a huge hole since the same money is now needed to pay current benefits.
Filling the hole would cost as much as $2 trillion, experts say.
As the same time, Bush has promised to make his tax cuts, set to expire in 2010, permanent – a $1 trillion promise – and to cut the escalating federal deficit in half in five years. He also will need more money – how much, he hasn’t said – for the war in Iraq.
“They’re almost mutually exclusive,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group that advocates balanced budgets.
Bixby suspects Bush will succeed in making the tax cuts permanent, his hand strengthened by the increased congressional majority.
Overhauling Social Security will be more difficult.
Most proposals involve some benefit cuts, at least for future retirees, and members of Congress are wary of that. It would be risky for Republicans to push this without Democratic support, and Bixby said, “I can’t honestly say the political climate is promising.”
The president, too, acknowledged the hurdles Thursday: “If it were easy, it would have already been done,” he said.
Bush also wants to simplify the tax code, a task anything but simple. He hasn’t said what changes he’ll propose, though he briefly flirted with the idea of a national sales tax before pulling back. He envisions a commission to make recommendations.
Big changes won’t be easy. Every tax break exists because some powerful interest fought for it. The last time the tax code was overhauled, in 1986, legislators went along partly because the bill lowered overall tax rates. Bush said Thursday he doesn’t wants his tax changes to cost anything.
On other proposals, Bush faces a mixed bag. They include:
-Cap jury awards in medical malpractice cases. Bush tried and failed to accomplish this in his first term, with the Democrats in the Senate united in blocking the way.
-Increase mandatory testing for high school students, building on his first-term No Child Left Behind law. There is still support for the underlying idea, but some Democrats will complain that it makes little sense to expand the law when what already exists is not, in their view, fully funded. Still, if Bush wants this, he’s got a decent chance of getting it.
-Opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Again, Bush failed in his first term, blocked in the Senate by Democrats and moderate Republicans. The question is whether that coalition can hold together.
-Social issues. While Bush did not specifically promise anything concerning abortion, gay rights and other issues important to social conservatives, these voters turned out big for him and they will expect a payoff. That could come with further efforts to restrict abortion, such as federal rules requiring parental consent.