WASHINGTON – President Bush is cashing in on the high marks he earned over the first 100 days of his presidency, this week rolling out the next phase of his agenda — a couple of conservative policy issues that will weigh just how much political capital he has accumulated.
Wednesday, the president formed a new Social Security Commission, a 16-member panel that will look for ways to privatize a portion of the pension system that is expected to run out of cash in 2032.
Bush appointed the bipartisan team to come up with the formula for privatization, and designated AOL/Time Warner co-chief operating officer Richard Pearson and former New York Democratic Sen. Pat Moynihan as co-chairs of the panel.
Moynihan, a highly respected politician in Washington who turned toward privatization during his final years in Congress, is expected to smooth over the lumps created by the politically divisive issue.
"The president spoke of his purpose to provide wealth and independence to all persons. This is a large purpose and we are happy to join in whatever service we may add," he said.
But Moynihan's appointment is not being celebrated by everyone. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., criticized the commission for not being open-minded since everyone on it, Democrat and Republican alike, supports privatization. He also said there are better options to fixing Social Security.
"I have great respect for Sen. Moynihan. Sen. Moynihan and I worked together, and there was never a more respected member of the United States Congress, but I respectfully disagree with his current position," Daschle said. "What we say today and tomorrow and every time we take this issue up is, don't mess with Social Security. Don't mess with it, don't destroy it. It's worked for all these years. It's guaranteed to work in the future."
Daschle, however, has more fights to face than just the establishment of a commission. One of the few dissenting voices being heard on Capitol Hill, he is trying to counter a barrage of issues, many which are conservative in nature, that the president campaigned on and seems to be achieving.
Two of those are budget and tax-cut packages. Wednesday, Senate negotiators agreed, in principle, to a 5-percent cap on spending for the next year. The president asked for a 4-percent increase. That deal follows an agreement in Congress Tuesday on a compromise $1.35 trillion tax cut over 11 years. The president had requested a $1.6 trillion cut over 10 years.
Daschle said he opposes the tax-cut package, even though it is a 22-percent reduction in the sum the president originally proposed.
The president, however, is chalking it up in the win column.
"The president shifted the tax-cut debate from a rancorous partisan debate over whether there will be tax relief to a bipartisan discussion of how much to give back to the American people," White House spokesman Jimmy Orr said. "We are very pleased with the tax-cut package that is a victory for the American public."
Orr said the president's agenda is not based on his current popularity — the president's job approval ratings are in the mid-50 to low-60 percent range — nor is his seeming success the result of a magic formula.
"There is nothing really mysterious about it. The president is doing things he said he would do," Orr said. That includes, he added, working out solutions with both sides of the aisle.
The agenda, however, may get harder to swallow for some Democrats. The president this week laid out his national missile defense program, which opponents say is costly and technologically infeasible. He also will press on with his faith-based initiative and education reform, Orr said.
But with the spate of recent successes, senators across the political spectrum are willing to let the president's momentum play out.
"I think we're aimed in the same direction, we're going to have differences of opinion which is healthy for a Democratic society," Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., said. "I hope we can charge on together."
"I don't think enough is known yet" about how conservative the president's policies will become, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "But I think it is right that in the next three months, we will know."
"I think the president is very conservative, very responsible," said Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a Republican. "In the end, I want somebody who does something that's good. And I think the president, thus far, you have to give him very high marks."