"I believe that an HMO that wrongly denies coverage to a patient should be held liable in court. But we must keep our eye on the purpose. We want to give patients the care they need when they need it. The idea is to serve more patients, not to create more lawsuits in America."
-- President Bush, promoting the Republican version of the patients bill of rights
The president has sought to gain ground in the P.R. war over the patients bill of rights by stepping up his support of a conservative alternative to the Kennedy-McCain bill that sets stricter limits on lawsuits. That plan, authored by Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., would limit patients' options to sue, requiring that cases be heard in federal court instead of state court, where damage awards tend to be higher. Other differences between the two bills are less consequential and contentious, but both sides are ready for a tough fight when the Senate debates the bill on Thursday.
Bush continues to insist that the Democratic plan would dramatically increase lawsuits and the cost of healthcare. But Republicans are feeling the heat on the issue, and GOP House members are signaling a new willingness to compromise over touchy provisions dealing with legal recourse for patients who think they've been treated unfairly by their HMOs.
The patients rights debate comes at a bad time for the president, according to the latest CBS News/New York Times poll. That survey shows that Bush's job approval rating has dropped to 53 percent, a 4-point decline since May. Just 25 percent of Americans believe that Bush has "concentrated on problems that matter most to them," and 61 percent say that he has his own priorities. Fewer than half of Americans believe he has the skills to "negotiate effectively with foreign leaders," and his numbers continue to be weak on the environment and energy policy. Fifty-five percent of the public disapproves of his environmental policies, and 46 percent of the public disapproves of his handling of energy issues.
One area in which the president's scores improved is his handling of the economy, with 50 percent of Americans approving of it, up from 46 percent in May. Though some of that improvement can be credited to the passage of his tax reform package, critics insist it is irresponsibly generous. A new study suggests that the actual cost of the tax cuts will be $1.8 trillion, not the $1.35 trillion price tag that the administration and Congress promoted. What's more, states are bracing for a potential loss of $100 billion over the next decade, thanks to the estate tax repeal.
Meanwhile, Congress is struggling to fully fund the government while keeping within budgetary limits. On Wednesday, the House passed a $6.5 billion supplemental spending bill, with most of those funds going to defense. Republicans warded off a Democratic effort to restore $389 million for disaster relief, but the GOP's conservative wing lost a chance to cut spending on all federal programs -- excepting Social Security, Medicare and defense -- for the remainder of the current fiscal year.
In other developments on Capitol Hill, California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis got the chance to plead his energy crisis case before a newly sympathetic Senate on Wednesday, arguing before the Governmental Affairs Committee that citizens of his state deserve $9 billion in refunds because they've been gouged by greedy power companies. Though Democrats welcomed Davis, Republicans essentially called him a crybaby who wants to dodge responsibility for his own mistakes in the energy crunch.
And don't miss the president's battle plan for Republican fundraising. Vulnerable senators will get most of Bush's personal attention. The president has pledged to headline donor dinners, while the first lady and the president's dad are set to handle events for needy House members.
Big businesses -- many of which have been big donors to the GOP -- are getting the red carpet rolled out for them at the White House. But Bush's business roundtable meetings are riling good-government critics, who already fault the Bush team for being too tight with industry.
Thursday schedule: The president travels to Alabama in the afternoon to promote his administration's conservation program in a speech at Oak Mountain State Park. In the evening, he headlines a fundraiser for Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., before flying to his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
-- Alicia Montgomery
This day in Bush history
June 21, 1991: Gannett News Service reported that the Republican National Committee was in high spirits during its annual summer meeting, confident that President George Bush, still flying high over his Gulf War win, would easily win reelection the next year. One of the few who dared to bring a wet blanket to the proceedings was George W. Bush, the president's son. At the time, he warned, "As soon as you start taking things for granted, you get whipped. I don't want George Bush on the unemployment rolls in 1992."
Poll watch: More trust Dems on patients rights
While the parties put aside bipartisanship to wrangle over competing versions of the patients bill of rights in the Senate, the American people have already chosen sides.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken from June 8 to 10 shows that 49 percent of the American public favors the Democratic approach, with 49 percent saying they have more confidence in Democratic leaders "when it comes to the issue of a patient's bill of rights" than in the president, compared with 34 percent who say that they have more confidence in Bush. The poll also shows that the legislation is a high priority among the public, with 77 percent ranking it as either "extremely important" or "very important" that Congress and the president deal with it this year.
In a separate Gallup survey conducted from June 11 to 17, Bush's approval rating held steady at 55 percent, unchanged from the previous week's poll. This mark has been relatively static since the beginning of May, when 53 percent of those surveyed by Gallup approved of Bush's job performance. That number climbed to 56 percent for the remainder of the month before settling in at 55 percent in June.
Both polls have a 3-point margin of error.
Bush job approval
Down from 53 percent, May 15 to 20
Steady at 55 percent, June 8 to 10
Steady at 59 percent, May 9 to 10
Down from 63 percent, April 19 to 22
Down from 55 percent, March 21 to 22
Up from 56 percent, April 23 to 25
Down from 57 percent, May 3 to 4
Links to the Web's best sites for hardcore Bush watchers.
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Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Karen Croft, Gary Kamiya, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York
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