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Mon, Oct. 14

Bush must bargain hard to win Democrats' respect

In spite of still smoldering bitterness over the presidential election endgame, it ought to be possible for President-elect George W. Bush to achieve some bipartisan legislative successes this year.

There are agreements to be had on education, Medicare reform, patients' rights and even tax cuts if Bush plays his cards skillfully.

That means demonstrating a cooperative spirit with Democratic leaders, then bargaining hard for what he wants, winning over as many moderate Democrats as he can, and caving in only if he has to.

For sure, Bush ought to take up a suggestion made by Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle, S.D., and hold regular weekly meetings with top Democrats to keep the lines of communication open.

"There's great benefit to be had in regularized contact," Daschle told me in a recent inteI-view. "It prevents misunderstandings. It gives everybody a chance to clear the air, to ask, 'What did you mean when you said that? Why did you do that?'"

Bush's ability to attract only one or maybe two Democrats into Cabinet level jobs is one indication that bipartisanship won't be easy. Moreover, it's practically gospel among Democratic activists that Bush's presidency is "illegitimate," handed to him by conservatives on the Supreme Court. Incoming Democratic National Committee Chairman Teny McAuliffe said in a party leaders' conference call in late December, "Let George W. Bush have a good week. Let him have a good inauguration. But we need to give these Republicans the same honeymoon they gave us: none." African-American Democrats, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, are especially bitter about Bush's victory and are not likely to be mollified by the fact that Bush's Cabinet "looks like America," ethnically speaking, every bit as much as Bill Clinton's did.

Bush's first batch of top-level appointees includes three African-Americans (as many as Clinton's did), six women (one more than Clinton appointed) and three Hispanics (one more than Clinton named).

By the definition of some Democrats, no matter how much he demonstrates that he believes in diversity, Bush can't be bipartisan unless he adopts Democratic priorities from the get-go.

That's not true. Bush is best off sticking to his "compassionate conservative" agenda, fighting for it as hard as he can and cutting deals with his base behind him.

Bush has started out sending mixed signals on private-school vouchers, the most controversial item on his education agenda. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer disputed a Washington Post story that said Bush was prepared to drop vouchers in order to get his program passed, but the denial was tepid. Bush may have to give up that item, but signaling a cave-in upfront only invites Democrats to try to win other concessions. He would be better off taking the suggestion of columnist Matthew Miller and increasing the value of vouchers to parents in failing school districts to an amount that might actually enable them to pay tuition at parochial schools.

Such a plan might help Bush win support from middle-class AfricanAmericans, since most polls show they favor vouchers as an escape from bad public schools.

On Medicare reform, Bush's obvious opportunity for bipartisanship is to back the prescription drug proposal of Sens. John Breaux, D-La., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn., which combines direct subsidies to seniors with administration outside the existing Medicare bureaucracy.

Democrats favor providing drugs through the existing Medicare system, but the Breaux-Frist bill may face more serious difficulty from Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., whose proposal calls for subsidizing private insurance companies and keeping the Medicare bureaucracy.

If Bush is going to cave on anything, it's likely to be his "helping hands" proposal, a temporary block grant to states that makes it easier for seniors to buy drugs while a new federal program gets up and running.

Incoming Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, favors creating a short-term bipartisan commission to iron out Medicare differences. On taxes Bush ought to push for his full $1.3 trillion package. He has two new good arguments going for it: the rapidly weakening economy that needs a boost and increased estimates of the I0-year federal budget surplus.

Bush ought to try to get what he wants first. He should smile and reach out, but the more he wins, the more Democrats will respect him.

(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)

Copyright 2001, Roll Call Newspaper. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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