WASHINGTON – President Bush has scheduled few public appearances this week, giving himself time to map out a second term agenda. But aides suggested on Monday that the president’s first targets would be the tax code, Social Security (search) reform or what the White House sees as ambulance-chasing lawyers.
"Medical liability reform (search) is something that we discussed throughout this campaign and that's something the president believes we ought to move on quickly," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.
The call to limit malpractice awards often got the president the biggest rounds of applause during his speeches on the campaign trail. The White House has blamed lawsuits for encouraging doctors to practice defensive medicine and causing their insurance rates to climb so high that many doctors are giving up their profession.
Democrats say lawsuit limits would be unfair to the patients of bad doctors, but one source well placed in the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill suggested that the GOP's first legislative priority next year would be tort reform.
"This is low-hanging fruit," the source said.
The Bush administration specifically wants to institute caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases and place restrictions on class-action litigation (search). Action could come in early 2005.
Social Security reform may not come so quickly. The source said it will be "impossible" to accomplish both tax code and Social Security reform in the next 18 months while another senior congressional staff member told FOX News that "it will be tough to do" both Social Security and tax code reforms before intense politicking geared toward the 2008 presidential elections begins.
Nonetheless, the president said last week that he will create a bipartisan panel to look for ways to build a better tax code.
"The main thing is that it would be viewed as fair, that it would be a fair system, that it wouldn't be complicated," Bush said during a press conference last Thursday.
The president says the new tax code must recognize the importance of home ownership and of charitable giving, but not necessarily by offering the same deductions as those given now. He would also like changes to promote job creation and economic growth and said he wants the panel to figure out how much the tax code should be used for social goals like promoting marriage and strong families.
A senior Bush administration official told Fox News that the best guidance on the timing and shape of the president's tax reform commission will be a December or January appointment of the panel, one which will resemble in structure and bipartisan staffing of the Social Security Commission.
"The White House regards that as having been a successful commission," the source said.
The appointments are a "collaborative process" between the White House and the treasury secretary, to which the panel will ultimately deliver its findings. Treasury Secretary John Snow (search) will then be responsible for evaluating the commission's work and making his own recommendations to the president. The whole process is expected to be complete by early 2005. All indications are that since Snow will be in the forefront of the process, he will remain in his job for at least the next two years.
The same official confirmed that Capitol Hill Republicans are telling the White House that the House has a greater appetite for tackling tax reform than Social Security reform despite the Social Security Commission (search) findings that "process is more naturally farther along than the other" three years ago.
A Capitol Hill source suggested the most likely avenue for tax code reforms would be to continue collapsing income tax brackets and working on capital gains breaks so that the final legislation might incrementally approach a flat tax without the White House calling for a sweeping overhaul of the entire code.
Nonetheless, Bush is expected to press Congress on Social Security reforms, continuing to suggest personal retirement accounts that let young people invest a portion of their taxes in the private sector despite a start-up cost estimated between $1.5 and $2 trillion.
"We know that if we don't act, the costs will far outweigh if we do act; that the cost is estimated to be some $10 trillion if we do nothing," McClellan said.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and James Rosen contributed to this report.