WASHINGTON – In a move that underscored his appreciation for – and camaraderie with – House Republicans, President Bush strolled over to a leadership rally this week to thank them for what he feels was a week full of administration victories.
"You have a lot to be proud of," Bush told the roomful of smiling Republicans. This weekend, most of them will be returning to their home districts for the summer recess, a time they will likely spend playing up the tax refund, and spinning this week's congressional votes their way.
Those votes include the passage of a House version of the patients' bill of rights that includes an amendment limiting the cap on punitive and non-economic damages patients can receive in lawsuits against their health maintenance organizations (HMOs). The bill restricted such lawsuits to state courts and it also exempted employers from such litigation.
The bill was coordinated with Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga. and was widely supported by GOP members of Congress and the president, who have long argued that limitless damages would result in higher insurance premiums and raise the number of those without insurance.
Democrats who opposed the bill – saying it is not as good as a Senate measure passed earlier in the year – took the loss hard Thursday, but not after a vigorous fight on the floor. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., implored his fellow congressmen to kill the measure. "In the name of God ... vote against this bill!" he exclaimed.
The victory on patients' rights, coupled with a series of other legislative victories, have some arguing that George W. Bush has surpassed all expectations for his six-month presidency.
"President Bush and House Republicans have had a tremendous shot of adrenaline," said Michael Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. "It's always one of the greatest political advantages to go into the recess with momentum."
But others say not so fast. Professor Rick Semiatin of American University in Washington D.C., warns that Bush ought not rest on his laurels for too long. "A lot of these bills are going to fail in the Senate," said the government affairs expert, who believes most of Bush's initiatives will be cut and twisted to the point where he will no longer own them.
"He might be an agenda setter, but not a policy leader," he said.
A Question of Political Capital
In addition to the patients' rights bill, which the president says he will sign, Senate Democrats caved on Friday to a veto threat by the President, passing a $5.5 billion farm assistance bill – $2 billion less than they had fought for – and handing Bush another victory before the August recess.
The agriculture measure capped a string of legislative successes for the president.
Bush's accountability-in-education proposal passed both congressional chambers and is now in conference committee, and his faith-based charity initiative passed the House and is headed for a tough fight in the Senate.
On Thursday, several Democrats joined House Republicans to pass Bush's energy plan which included a controversial oil drilling proposal in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The president was helped by an unlikely alliance of conservative Republicans and labor unions that see a potential for thousands of jobs in the project.
But Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) have threatened to filibuster the measure in the Senate if necessary.
Semiatin says not only are Republicans fighting an uphill battle on the oil drilling, but it might not be worth it for Bush to expend the political capital on an issue that isn't necessarily high on voters' list of priorities.
"The arctic drilling in the ANWR, forget about it. Not only do the Democrats control the Senate, but they’re going to filibuster it to death," he said. "You can swear to fight it all you want – but is it really worth it?"
But Franc sees the future legislative wrangle as more of a burden on Democrats – especially Minority Leader Gephardt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who in their many protestations risk having a "do-nothing" image.
"What's happening in a way is there are now a lot of monkeys on Gephardt's back," said Franc. "He's setting himself up as Dr. No. [Sen. Daschle] is almost in a position now where he cannot be perceived as the impediment to the rose garden ceremony and getting things done."
In addition to this week's accomplishments, Bush successfully pushed a tax relief measure and boasted of making more nominations to the Senate before the August recess before any previous administration.
"The conventional wisdom was greatly exceeded this week. That's where Bush had his greatest victory," noted Franc.
"I don't care what anyone says, he's not a stupid guy. He knows how to play the game," said Semiatin. But he warns that it could be expensive to stretch the agenda too thin.
"I think he did well in his first four months in office," Semiatin continued. "But now they've put all of these different issues out there and they've lost focus. I think they have to go back to what they were doing when they were more disciplined."
The Associated Press contributed to this report