"Today's action brings us an important step closer to ensuring that patients get the care they need and that HMOs are held accountable."
-- A statement by President Bush about the House's passage of his compromise patients' bill of rights
At the beginning of this week, President Bush faced limping into a long summer vacation with barely a single legislative victory to his credit, and the prospect of having to veto a popular patients' bill of rights in September. But Thursday's House vote to approve the compromise that Bush wrangled with longtime reform advocate Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., capped a two-day turnabout for the president on the Hill, and he'll take off for a 30-day break in Texas on Saturday with Washington back in his command.
The compromise bill, with the Bush-backed restrictions on lawsuits and damages awards, passed on a 226-203 vote. Republicans didn't lose a single vote from their party, holding on to all the GOP moderates who, throughout the past weeks of debate, had balked at the version of the bill backed by their leadership.
Now the bill goes to conference committee, where Democratic Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., John Edwards, D-N.C., and renegade Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will be faced with an ugly choice. They can either fight to reinstate the measures that Bush managed to remove from the House bill, which might look petty or like blatant political provocation of a presidential veto, or swallow Bush's changes and grit their teeth as he takes at least partial credit for the legislation. Either way, Bush wins, reclaiming part of his "reformer with results" mantle by brokering the deal.
His patients' rights victory builds on the momentum of an equally unexpected House win on Wednesday for Bush's once-comatose energy plan. The issue has divided Democratic loyalties between organized-labor groups that favor Bush's energy policy and the environmental groups that strongly oppose it. Thanks in part to that split, the Republican leadership was able to push through even the most controversial element of the White House plan, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The House may be back at Bush's beck and call, having recovered from the fitful rebellion of GOP moderates, but the Senate is still in the hostile hands of the Democrats, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Dashcle, D-S.D., may yet devise a strategy to slow Bush's roll. On the patients' bill of rights, that will be especially tricky, considering that Democrats have spent the past three months beating Bush over the head with opinion polls that show how crucial the issue is to the American public. Daschle may have similar problems maintaining his party's resistance to Bush's popular faith-based charities initiative, which passed in the House last week.
On that plan and others, Daschle will have to contend with the stubborn "Blue Dog" moderates in his own party, many of whom were more than willing to cut a deal with the president on the tax cut, his last big Senate win. On Thursday, more than 10 Democrats broke ranks with their party's leadership, voting in favor of Bush's plan to kill federal funding for gun-buyback programs. If Daschle can't hold the Dems on an issue like gun control, how can he do so on the hard decisions coming up in the fall?
He'll have a month to think it over, since Bush will be relaxing at his Texas ranch until Labor Day. The president's critics have steadily blasted his affinity for long weekends at the "Western White House," asserting that it demonstrates his unwillingness to work hard. But public opinion polls suggest that most American voters think that Bush works hard enough to get his job done. After the past two days, it will be tougher to argue with that.
And don't miss word of the early demise of Comedy Central's "That's My Bush," a sitcom centered on the Bush White House. Successful "South Park" auteurs Matt Stone and Trey Parker created the series, but "That's My Bush" suffered by comparison with that long-running show, costing twice as much to produce and bringing in a little more than half the viewers.
Parker and Stone aren't through with the first family yet. They're shopping for a studio to bankroll a full-length action comedy tentatively titled "George Bush & the Secret of the Glass Tiger." In that project, the president would lead the nation in fending off a Chinese invasion.
Friday schedule: In the morning, the president meets with his Cabinet. Later, he speaks about cancer in a joint White House appearance with Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.
Bush league: Nominee goes down
The president suffered his first confirmation defeat when the Senate Commerce Committee rejected Mary Sheila Gall's bid to chair the Consumer Product Safety Commission by a party line 12-11 vote. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is being hailed/blamed as the chief architect of Gall's defeat, objecting to the nominee's record of siding with businesses on child safety issues like recalls for flammable pajamas and defective bunk beds.
Gall was first named to the commission in 1991 and earned a new term in 1999 (thanks to Sen. Clinton's husband). Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., could try a procedural maneuver to bring her nomination to the floor, but he's expressed little enthusiasm for that. Gall will retain her post as commissioner. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer responded to the news by declaring that "bipartisanship lost today."
The Democrats had threatened defeat of Bush nominees before, most notably Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose right-wing résumé angered almost every liberal interest group in the galaxy. In the end, Ashcroft passed the full Senate 58-42, with eight Democrats switching sides to back him. Likewise, veteran Clinton hater Ted Olson won confirmation after considerable Democratic huffing and puffing, scraping by with a 51-47 win.
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Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Gary Kamiya, Kerry Lauerman, Alicia Montgomery, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York
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