Publicly, the White House will tell you that it intends to push ahead with two of its big legislative issues throughout the fall: making permanent the first term tax cuts and Social Security reform.
Even privately, with the political and policy debacle that the White House created with its Clintonian response to Hurricane Katrina, policy and political types at 1600 Pennsylvania insist what’s left of an agenda is still viable.
But at this stage of the game, barring some imaginative political moves that bear some resemblance to the Bush Administration circa 2002, Republicans on Capitol Hill and even some longtime Bush team members in various Cabinet level departments say this Administration is done for.
“You run down the list of things we thought we could accomplish and you have to wonder what we thought we were thinking,” says a Bush Administration member who joined on in 2001. “You get the impression that we’re more than listless. We’re sunk.”
Too pessimistic? Maybe not. Rumors are flying through various departments of longtime senior Bush loyalists looking to jump, but with few opportunities in the private sector to make the jump look like anything more than desperation. Almost daily, complaints from Cabinet level Departments come in to the White House about lack of communication coordination on even basic policy matters.
“What happened was that some of the best people who were working in the Administration during the first term, but who weren’t necessarily Bush campaign members or weren’t particularly close to the White House, jumped when they saw opportunities being filled by under-qualified but more politically connected people,” says a current Administration senior staffer in a Cabinet department. “In this department we lost three quarters of the people who should have been encouraged to stay, and most of them left simply because they had received no indication they would be considered for better or different opportunities. And many of these folks would have stayed.”
But enough about the lack of a team to implement a message. Let’s look at the mission.
Congressional committee sources on both sides of Capitol Hill predict tough slogging on anything of policy consequence. “Social Security is dead as far as my chairman is concerned. So are the tax cuts,” says a Ways and Means staffer of Chairman Bill Thomas.
Before hurricane season wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast and in Washington, the thinking was that Thomas was poised to take up a major tax bill that might feature several critical components of the Bush Administration’s Social Security reform. Now those plans appear to have dimmed considerably.
According to one school of thought, some GOP tax policy changes might have contributed to a more market-oriented approach to reconstruction efforts in the Katrina recovery. Instead, Republicans were stunned to hear about programs that read as if cribbed from the Clinton Administration.
Although Republicans on the Hill are left with a bit of wiggle room to make adjustments to the Bush proposals, they will need political cover if they are to successfully navigate a path made difficult by the Bush team’s allowing the media and Democrats to paint the GOP into a corner.
Changes in the political landscape do not appear to have dramatically changed President Bush’s views on a Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
As of Friday, sources close the White House said the long-standing favorite of conservatives to replace O’Connor, Judge Edith Jones, had not yet met with the President to discuss the opportunity.
When asked about the seeming lack of consideration of Jones, a White House source counseled against reading too much into it. “There have been plenty of opportunities in the last few weeks for the President to meet with people under the radar. We’ve done it before, we’re doing it now.”
Bush has met with at least one women, federal appeals Judge Priscilla Owen, though insiders say there are doubts she has the personality to accomplish the kind of PR blitz successfully undertaken by Judge John Roberts.
One reason Owen maybe be given greater consideration is the G.W. Bush’s history with her, compared to G.H.W. Bush’s history with Jones.
“Owen is tied to this President Bush. He fought for her, and she stood by him during that fight,” says another White House source about Owen’s long confirmation ordeal. “Jones is tied to the first President Bush. She was perhaps the alternate pick to [David] Souter. For this President Bush to pick the woman everyone now knows played second fiddle to his father’s greatest mistake might be too much to ask for.”
Another name that has moved quickly forward is former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, who would be nominated having served not a day on the bench. Thompson, though, is almost universally liked by the Bush Administration, worked closely with the President on the Corporate Fraud Task Force, and has no paper trail to speak of from his time in government.
However, Thompson, according to current and former associates, is believed by many to be a moderate Republican, with pro-abortion leanings. And while people point to his time as a scholar at the Brookings Institution after leaving the Department of Justice in 2003, there was no liberal like-mindedness in that move, according to Brookings sources. “We wanted a conservative, and Larry was someone we had targeted, particularly because of his ties to business. We thought he’d be good for fundraising,” says a Brookings scholar.
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