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Bush political skills tested by budget, Social Security
by Bill Straub
Scripps Howard News Service

February 09, 2005

Washington - Speaking to thousands of enthusiastic supporters in Omaha, Neb., President Bush acknowledged last week that reforming Social Security is "a hard issue" that many lawmakers - including members of his own Republican Party - are reluctant to embrace.

But Bush added: "It doesn't matter how hard the issue is. As a matter of fact, the harder the issue, the bigger the challenge, and the more exciting it's going to be when we get the job done."

Bush has a history of advancing programs as president. He has pushed through three separate tax cuts, won a bruising battle to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and captured congressional support to wage war against Iraq.

But early in his second term, Bush has tackled two issues that will fully test his political acumen - Social security and budget cuts, some of which will impact his traditional red-state constituency.

The president's $2.57 trillion budget proposal, unveiled Monday, eliminates or substantially reduces 150 federal programs. While Republican leaders are reluctant to criticize the document, they aren't exactly effusive in their praise either.

House Speaker Denny Hastert, R-Ill., for instance, characterized it as "a good starting point for the Congress to begin its work."

Among the cuts receiving the most notice: $587 million from farm price supports and changes in the Department of Veteran Affairs requiring some who do not have service-connected illnesses or injuries to pay a $250 annual fee and increase prescription drug co-payments from $7 to $15 for a 30-day supply of medicine.

Those changes and others have not been warmly greeted by many of the president's traditional supporters.

A coalition of agricultural organizations, including the American Farm Bureau, has written Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns warning that cuts like the one proposed for price supports would have a deleterious effect on the rural economy.

"With prices for many major commodities falling sharply from last year, reductions to farm programs would come at precisely the time that these supports are most needed in rural America," the letter said.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee who has consistently backed Bush initiatives, already has announced he will resist the proposed cuts, particularly those aimed at cotton and rice farmers.

While farmers were polite in voicing their opposition, veterans were livid. Thomas P. Cadmus, national commander of the 2.7 million-member American Legion, said the VA proposal is "a smoke screen to raise revenue at the expense of veterans."

"This is not acceptable," Cadmus said. "It's nothing more than a health-care tax designed to increase revenue at the expense of veterans who served their country."

Bickering between a president and Congress over funding priorities isn't unusual, although the degree of opposition this go-round indicates Bush might have a tougher road than usual.

The real problem revolves around Social Security and the president's desire to create a private-investment option for future beneficiaries. Despite a series of heartland trips to generate support for the plan that would permit workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into government-approved investment plans, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Tuesday showed that 55 percent of Americans consider it "a bad idea."

Bush's promotional efforts don't appear to be getting anywhere with recalcitrant Republican lawmakers, and with almost all Democrats lined up against the proposal, he doesn't have enough support _ at least not yet.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., usually a reliable administration supporter, is among those who appear unalterably opposed to the Bush proposal.

"I cannot support any plan to allow workers to place any portion of their Social Security taxes in risky investments, especially those that depend upon the stock market to appreciate in value," Emerson said.

But Bush assured the Detroit Economic Club on Tuesday that he intends to move ahead aggressively on both the budget and Social Security.

"I understand these are big goals," he said. "But the job of the president is to confront problems, not to pass then on to future generations, future presidents, and future Congresses."


E-mail Bill Straub at StraubB(at)

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