Crunch Time for Bush Before Vacation

The next few days will spell out whether President Bush will be whooping it up or licking his wounds when he heads out for a long summer vacation at his Texas ranch next week.

Some are calling this week a political “gut-check” period for the new administration, as August recess looms over a Congress tackling drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), stem cell research and a patients' bill of rights, among other hot-button measures.

“We don't know what will come out of this — it's kind of a crossroads for the Republican leaders in Congress and the president,” said Norm Ornstein, a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C.

“But it's gut-check time. They have a rough couple of weeks ahead, they have lost control of the agenda and put on the defensive,” he noted.

Although the president scored a significant victory with his tax cut and has made strides in changing the political tone in Washington, Sen. James Jeffords' defection from the GOP while promising to vote with Democrats on several major issues delivered a blow to the administration, which had banked on a majority in both chambers of Congress.

As a result, Democrats have been able to wrest control of some of the Senate agenda and have stalled Bush's appointees.  This has forced Republicans in the House to move more aggressively to promote GOP priorities.

"[Bush] faces endemic problems in Congress," said Sarah Binder, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University and a Washington-based Brookings Institution scholar.  "There's the Senate problems; he's got small margins in the House. In fact there are a lot of disagreements within the House,” said Binder.

Ornstein says the Republican leadership in Congress ought to shoulder some of the blame for the current uncertainty surrounding the fate of several issues, including Bush's energy policy proposal, his push for faith-based community initiatives and patients' rights.

“I think the Republican leaders in Congress have not served their president particularly well. They certainly haven't gone out of their way to make their members happy,” he said, adding that those members facing tough election fights in 2002 need political cover to work in concert with the administration on some controversial issues.

“The vulnerable members are not going to walk the plank regularly just so [the GOP leadership] can have bargaining leverage,” he said.

Several issues hang in the balance before either chamber, and the president, can go on recess next week.

These include:

Stem Cell Research

Bush put on hold until further review a 1999 regulation that would have funded two federal research projects. The debate over federal funding for research that requires the deliberate destruction of human embryos to harvest embryonic stem cells faces an uncertain future.  Abortion rights supporters in the Congress, along with some self-identified "pro-life" members, are pressuring the president to guarantee federal funding for research they hope will lead to medical breakthroughs.  Bush has not announced his position.  

Two pieces of legislation coming up on the House floor seek to prevent scientists from cloning people, but they differ greatly on how to handle research, which includes the use of stem cells. One prohibits all cloning, even for research. The other bans cloning only for reproductive purposes. The Bush administration issued a statement Monday saying it would support the measure that bans all human cloning.

Patients' Bill of Rights 

The president supports a limited patients' protection measure with caps on lawsuits filed against Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs). Bush says without such caps, costs will increase and push more people off the insurance rolls.  A broad Democratic-backed bill favoring lawsuits without caps already passed in the Senate, but Bush has been busy lobbying House members, including to bring the legislation more to his liking.

Bush urged Georgia Rep. Charlie Norwood, a key House sponsor of patients' rights legislation, to align himself with the White House on the issue and not with the Democrats. "We are very close to a deal," Norwood spokesman John Stone said Monday.

 Mexican Trucks

Last week, the Senate refused to remove a measure to a transportation bill that would force Mexican trucks to undergo safety inspections before crossing the border into the United States. Nineteen Republicans and 50 Democrats voted last week to keep the inspections in the bill and the measure moves toward a final vote this week. An even more restrictive measure on the trucks was passed by the House last month. Bush said he wanted to keep the language out to reduce the red tape on Mexican-American trade relations in keeping with the North American Free Trade Agreement.

 Energy

Bush's proposal for limited oil drilling in ANWR to increase the nation's energy supply has drawn the ire of Democrats and environmental groups. Other measures up for consideration include proposals to finance energy research and provide billions of dollars in tax credits for alternative fuel solutions.

 Agriculture

Democrats are pushing through the Senate a $7.4 billion agricultural package with $2 billion more than the president and Senate Republicans want.  The White House has threatened to veto the bill if it comes to the president with spending requirements above what he thinks is prudent.

Fox News' Brian Wilson and Kelley O. Beaucar contributed to this report