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By SARA FRITZ
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2001
WASHINGTON -- Political science textbooks say members of Congress are supposed to wait until the president sends them major pieces of legislation before they start to tinker with them. Under George W. Bush, however, the old rules are being discarded.
Even before Bush unveils his $1.6-trillion tax cut proposal today, a compromise between the president and both Republicans and Democrats in Congress is already taking shape. Likewise, on a variety of other legislative issues such as education, Medicare reform and the "patients bill of rights," the bargaining process has outpaced Bush's ability to send the paperwork to Capitol Hill.
Of course, it would be foolish to assume that the current rush to compromise will eliminate the usual partisan pull-and-tug that occurs as legislation moves through Congress. But in an era when everyone has complained bitterly about gridlock in Washington, the expectations that Bush and Congress will resolve their many differences seem unusually high.
The current movement toward compromise is particularly stunning when it is compared with the hostile reception that a Democratic-controlled Congress gave in 1993 to a health care reform bill that was the No. 1 legislative priority of President Bill Clinton. Neither side ever showed any willingness to compromise on that one.
This time, because of the closeness of the presidential election and the narrow hold Republicans have on both houses of Congress, Bush has to be aware of the need for compromise.
Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, credits Bush and Democrats in Congress with creating a more cooperative atmosphere.
"Democrats don't know what to do with this president," Shaw said. "They see it as an opportunity not to be left out in the cold as Republicans were during the Clinton administration."
Bush has made it clear there are some elements of his tax cut plan on which he does not intend to compromise. He wants Congress to pass a bill no bigger and no smaller than $1.6-trillion, and rates must be cut across the board.
"This is the right size plan, it is the right approach and I'm going to defend it mightily," Bush has said frequently. But Bush has indicated he is willing to bargain on many other details, such as the timing of the tax cuts.
"A lot of members of Congress have talked to me about that," Bush said this week. "And I do (agree with them). We look forward to working with Congress to expedite money into the pockets of the American people."
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, noted that while Bush has demonstrated a willingness to compromise on many details of his tax plan, Democrats have at the same time softened their opposition. He predicted a bill will be enacted by May.
"The other party has moved a long way, and there's going to be more movement," Grassley said, recalling that Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore called the plan a giveaway to the rich.
Democratic leaders in Congress still believe Bush's tax cut proposal is too big and too generous for the wealthy. But when the Congress gets ready to vote on it, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., predicts, the Democrats will be helping to bid up the price of the tax cut.
"There's going to be a feeding frenzy of porcine proportions," Graham said.
When it comes to education reform, a similar agreement seems to be shaping up. Democrats are pleased by Bush's proposal, according to Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, D-Calif., because the president borrowed heavily from Democrats when he drafted it.
"The reason the Democrats like it so much is because we thought of it," Tauscher said.
Only one element of Bush's education plan -- government-financed vouchers that would help students in failing public schools to pay for education elsewhere -- has drawn fire from the Democrats.
Tauscher described vouchers as "a dead letter," but Graham said he could vote for a bill providing for them as long as they were not financed with federal funds.
In response, Bush has already indicated that vouchers, which the Republicans call "opportunity scholarships," are not a central element of his plan.
"With or without opportunity scholarships," Grassley said, "the bill will pass."
Bush also told members of Congress when he unveiled his proposal for prescription drug benefits for seniors that he was open to compromise. Both parties in Congress want to provide prescription drug coverage as part of an overhaul of the Medicare system, not as a separate piece of legislation as Bush has proposed.
Grassley said Medicare reform, including prescription drug coverage, could be completed as early as June if Democrats and Bush can agree on a compromise that would allow private insurers to play a role, as the president has proposed.
On another important issue, a patients bill of rights, White House officials have acknowledged they are worried that Republicans and Democrats in Congress will reach a compromise even before the president has time to make his own proposal.
When Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., unveiled a bipartisan patients rights bill this week, the president pleaded with them to wait. "I just want people in the House and Senate to know that I'm coming with a plan," Bush said.
One day later, the president hurriedly sent Congress a 11/2-page document titled "principles for a bipartisan patients' bill of rights."
Overall, Bush has received high marks for his willingness to cooperate with Congress during his first three weeks. "On a scale of zero to 10," Graham said, "I'd give him an 8.837."
Although most Republicans would probably give Bush a 10, some members of the president's own party do seem a little on edge as they watch him demonstrate such a cooperative attitude. "He may have a tendency to compromise too early," Grassley said.