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Jewish World Review August 7, 2001 / 18 Meanchem-Av 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Bush and Hastert keep the House in order -- so far -- CONFOUNDING doubters, President Bush and GOP leaders managed to get the President's faith-based initiative through the House. They may win a compromise on patients' rights too. But there's trouble ahead with trade-promotion authority.

Some Democrats and journalists predicted that enough moderate Republicans would consistently vote with Democrats to thwart Bush's positions in the one chamber his party controls. So far, that hasn't happened. For now, at least, Bush and Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., rule. Hastert contrived to maneuver Democrats into deep-sixing their own campaign finance bill, probably for the rest of this Congressional session.

Then it appeared that GOP moderates and Democrats would block Bush's high-priority program to aid church-connected charities because it allows them to avoid state and local strictures on employment discrimination.

Despite this objection, the measure passed and at least has a chance of becoming law, though surely with tightened discriminatory language, if Bush can generate enough pressure on Senate Democrats to bring it up and pass it.

Last week skeptics thought Bush and Hastert had finally hit a wall when the GOP leadership postponed consideration of patients' rights legislation -- clearly because it lacked the votes to bar passage of the Dingell-Ganske-Norwood bill that would permit nearly unlimited lawsuits against HMOs and insurance companies.

However, feverish White House lobbying and leadership whipping may have turned that situation around, possibly producing a cap on non-economic and punitive damages, and possibly channeling some lawsuits to federal courts instead of lawyer-friendly state courts.

Last year, no fewer than 68 Republicans voted for Dingell-Norwood -- a safe election-year action -- when it was certain the bill would be blocked in the then GOP-controlled Senate.

This year, with a similar bill having passed the Senate, Hastert and Bush had to pull those Republicans away. As of last Wednesday, they reportedly were 20 votes shy. As of the end of the week, they were perhaps 10 to 12 votes short and were claiming they might even win over pivotal Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga.

It will be a major achievement if the President can woo enough House Republicans to throw patients' rights into a House-Senate conference. Then the conference might produce a bill he can sign into law. Thus, he could simultaneously claim he won as well as demonstrated a willingness to achieve bipartisan compromise.

Bush faces another uncertain test on energy legislation before the August break, but the biggest one of all will come over trade-promotion authority, a key to both his foreign policy and political strategy.

The White House and GOP leaders hoped to pass what used to be known as "fast track" before the upcoming recess, but aides to Hastert think it's a long shot, and Democrats think it's a non-starter.

According to pro-trade Democrats, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., has only begun to discuss including labor and environmental standards in trade legislation, which is crucial to getting the 30 to 40 Democratic votes needed to pass TPA.

The base Republican trade bill, sponsored by Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill., contains no mention of labor and environmental standards and could receive no more than five or six Democratic votes.

A middle-ground concept being pushed by Democratic Reps. Cal Dooley of California, John Tanner of Tennessee, and Bill Jefferson of Louisiana, would include standards and a toolbox of enforcement devices, including trade sanctions. Some Democrats say this could attract 20 to 25 Democrats if Republicans accept it.

Mainline Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, want sanctions written into agreements -- a position Republicans won't accept.

Meantime, Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., is working on legislation that would give Congress annual opportunities to "review" trade agreements -- not just vote them up or down -- and, perhaps, limit their duration. This might attract Democrats, but lose Republicans.

Bush is getting set to do a hard sell on TPA, emphasizing, in particular, the benefits to Mexico already derived from the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, which most Democrats opposed, and the benefits to other neighboring countries from a possible Free Trade Area of the Americas.

The whole process of selling TPA on the basis of its advantages to Latin American countries may serve Bush's political purpose of expanding his support among Hispanic voters, which he is also doing by considering ways for illegal aliens and guest workers to become permanent legal residents.

The President presumably is also gaining ground among Mexican-Americans while Democrats lead the way in blocking Mexican trucks from entering the United States, as allowed by NAFTA, erecting barriers to which Canadian trucks are not subject.

"Mexico is our close friend, and we must treat them with respect and uphold NAFTA," Bush told a group of Congressional leaders hours before all 50 Senate Democrats voted to shut off a filibuster designed to prevent passage of a bill to bar Mexican trucks.

It's too much to say that Bush is on a roll the way he was when his tax cuts and budget proposals swept through Congress. The Senate, after all, is now hostile territory. But there are signs that his own party is sticking with him, even if he has to expend extra energy to make it happen.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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