Bush launching campaign for second-term agenda;

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President seeks changes on malpractice awards, tax code, Social Security

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — President Bush is jetting to the Midwest today while Republican interest groups in Washington are raking in advertising money. It may seem like it’s still election season.

In fact, Bush and his allies are waging a new campaign to amass support for a second-term agenda that includes revamping Social Security, rewriting medical malpractice and immigration laws, and overhauling the nation’s tax code.

If history is a guide, the president’s toughest opponent is time. He probably has a narrow window in which to capitalize on post-election momentum and push ideas through Congress before he is regarded as a lame duck.

Even with a full foreign policy platter – Bush is responding to a disaster in Asia while monitoring a war and two upcoming elections in the Middle East – the president is following through on a pledge to aggressively push his agenda at home after the holidays.

“I made it clear what I intend to do as the president. Now let’s work,” he said at a news conference after the election.

But Bush has no easy task. On the politically explosive issue of Social Security, Bush will meet opposition from Democrats, deep concern among Republicans and a tough reality: Partly privatizing the entitlement program, as he is calling for, will either be costly or require unpopular benefit cuts.

News reports have noted some cuts under consideration, including pegging first-year retiree benefits to the inflation rate rather than rises in wages, which tend to outstrip inflation. Also leaking out was a plan for younger workers to contribute up to $1,300 a year to retirement investment accounts, the Associated Press reported yesterday.

On the issue Bush will address today during a visit to Illinois – his desire to cap jury awards in medical malpractice cases – he faces solid opposition from Democrats. Even with Republican gains in Congress, his party lacks the 60 votes needed to break a Senate filibuster such as Democrats have used in the past to block legislation Bush supports.

His hope to offer working status to some illegal immigrants, as well as his effort to simplify the tax code, have sparked divisions within his own party.

In coming weeks, aides said, Bush will be on the road speaking about his agenda and following a blueprint he used in 2001 to promote his first tax cut. He hopscotched from state to state, speaking to voters in districts where a senator or House member opposed the White House or was on the fence.

Meanwhile, organizations that bankrolled the Bush re-election campaign are returning to donors to ask for money to support him. Conservative groups such as Progress for America and the Club for Growth have pledged millions of dollars to help advertise and rebut attacks on his Social Security plan, which critics say would rob retirees of benefits. On the other side, groups such as AARP, whose 35 million members are age 50 and above, are waging their own advertising war.

A full-page AARP ad in major newspapers warns that Bush is going to make future benefits dependent on the ebbs and flows of Wall Street: “Winners & losers are stock market terms. Do you really want them to become retirement terms?”

Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution said Bush and his loyalists have learned from the mistakes of past presidents, many of whom were lackadaisical after re-election.

“Historically, a second term starts to look like an hourglass with the sand running out,” Hess said. “But presidents want to do things.”

Bush takes his campaign today to Collinsville, in southern Illinois. It is no accident that Illinois is home to Sen. Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat who has championed alternative legislation on medical malpractice.

Bush contends that excessive jury awards in malpractice cases have driven up the cost of liability insurance for doctors and forced them to shut practices. He wants to cap the noneconomic damages awarded by many juries at $250,000.

Former Republican Rep. James C. Greenwood of Pennsylvania, who favors capping jury awards, said Bush’s public pitch on the issue will be helpful if it can convince voters that Senate Democrats “are being obstructionist.”

“He should also be playing good cop, bad cop,” Greenwood said. “Put pressure on senators through their constituents. But then bring them to the White House and say, `I’ve put the heat on you. So now let’s talk.'”

Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which opposes Bush’s plan, said the president is “on a warpath to blame the ills of the health care system on a manufactured concept that lawsuits are the heart of the problem.”

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