WASHINGTON — When George H.W. Bush was U.S. president, George W. Bush considered himself a disciplinarian, protecting his dad from sniping from the right. He worried about the weakening of his father’s political position as his support from conservative Republicans eroded.
Now there seems to be evidence that he is now facing the same situation. The problem has been simmering for months, at least since last fall when the civil libertarian elements in the conservative movement took umbrage at the carelessness that the Justice Department was using in attacking terrorism in the wake of 9/11.
But the demands Bush made of Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seemed to be the dam-breaker. The conservatives are getting very uneasy about this presidency. The criticism from the right represents a new phenomenon for Bush who, during his campaign and first year in office, made special efforts to cultivate conservatives on issues such as tax cuts and stem cell research and with nominations such as John D. Ashcroft, a favorite of Christian activists, for U.S. attorney general.
The harping is not anywhere near fatal for the president. He is still riding well over 70 percent favorable in the national opinion polls. But the criticism from high-profile conservatives have provided a long-sought opening for Democrats, who had feared that denouncing Bush would provoke a backlash because of his meteoric, though slipping, standing in polls as a wartime commander in chief. Conservatives are creating an environment in which it is acceptable to be critical of the president.
The floor of the Senate and that of a bazaar have much in common in terms of transactional activity. Now up for debate is the matter of trade-negotiating authority — the “fast track” authority the president wants to allow him to make trade deals with other nations without having to have every word and comma knit picked by Congress. It is an important matter to him and he wants it very badly. Democrats, led by Senate majority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, are anxious to provide subsidies for health-care insurance for workers whose jobs are moved overseas. Daschle says one will not pass without the other.
That has put the game in play. Now the rhetoric begins: “The far right will be responsible for the fact that the trade legislation collapses in the Senate if this doesn’t happen.” Senate minority leader Trent Lott, a Missouri Republican, complained that he is concerned about the cost of the health programs being proposed.
Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, is serving as a bridge between his party’s leaders and the White House. “The problem is that two-thirds of the Democratic caucus doesn’t like the trade bill and two-thirds of the Republican caucus doesn’t like the health provisions,” Breaux said. “The challenge is to get a majority of both sides to accept something they don’t like.”
Business groups have worked for years to build support for the trade authority, while labor leaders and lawmakers from many blue-collar districts believe that the measure will send jobs overseas. The bill passed the House by one vote last year in one of the hardest-fought battles of Bush’s administration. A huge lobbying blitz is beginning this week, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other business groups holding a “fly-in” for hundreds of members from throughout the country to come and lobby their senators.
The president is likely to get his trade authority — and the additional health care for the unemployed he really does not care about. The health-care subsidies would become a part of a trade-adjustment assistance program that has existed since 1962. The program, which has traditionally provided training as well as extended unemployment benefits, targets workers who lose their jobs specifically because of increased imports. Congress is considering providing coverage for employees of factories that move overseas. Everybody will act as if they are happy.
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