The Democrats attack Bush's budget as a threat to Social Security and the surplus.

Published August 20, 2001 9:22AM (EDT)

Daily line "The president's committed to not touching the Social Security surplus. Period."
--Lawrence Lindsay, Bush's top economic advisor, denying Democratic charges about the president's budget plans

Bush buzz

While Bush continues his vacation, interrupted by "Home to the Heartland" visits to battleground states, his critics are picking apart his agenda in Washington.

The Democrats, armed with new, deflated numbers tracking the federal surplus, are reviving their argument that the Bush tax cut will sink the nation back into debt, and that the president will have to raid the Social Security trust fund to pay America's bills. The Bush team counters that the president wouldn't dream of dipping into Social Security, but the White House has come up with an accounting gimmick to plump up the numbers covering economic growth and the surplus, just in case. Predictably, the Democrats are crying foul.

It's not the best atmosphere for the White House Social Security reform commission to press the president's case for partial privatization of the federal retirement fund, a policy choice that Democrats have labeled fiscally irresponsible. As if the Democrats didn't have enough to shout about, the commission seems determined to carry on the administration's hush-hush approach to policy development, announcing plans to hold its upcoming meeting in private, without disclosing deliberations to the press or the public. That's what got Vice President Cheney in trouble with the White House energy policy task force, and his determination to keep secrets about those policy meetings has him headed for a possible court battle with the General Accounting Office.

Bush knew that Social Security reform would be a tough sell from the start, but his faith-based charity program was supposed to go down easy. Just when the president thought the plan had regained some momentum, Democrat John DiIulio, Bush's faith-based charity czar, abruptly stepped down from his post last week. Though the White House has been quick to shrug off the departure as non-news -- DiIulio had never committed himself to a long stay -- it was no secret that DiIulio was unhappy with the political gamesmanship that surrounded the initiative.

While DiIulio strove to overcome Democratic skepticism and concern that the federal funding of church groups would blur the line between church and state, he also had to battle some religious conservatives who didn't think he was committed enough to preserving the faith-centered character of church charities. DiIulio's departure will likely decrease the credibility of Bush's claim that the plan has bipartisan support; a version of the initiative passed the House on a largely party-line vote, and it has found no Democratic champion in the Senate, though Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., is working on his own version of the measure.

Though Bush has had trouble all along building bipartisan support for the faith-based charity plan, he'd won tepid praise for forging a principled compromise on fetal stem cell research that would allow federal funding for research on more than 60 existing stem cell lines. But some scientists are beginning to doubt whether Bush's plan is realistic or fair. They are questioning the viability and, in some cases, even the existence of the stem cell lines the president has OK'd for federal funds, as well as the wisdom of putting what they consider an arbitrary limit on potentially life-saving research.

It's easy to forget that Bush began his vacation on a high note, having reinforced the "compassionate" side of his "compassionate conservative" image with a last-minute compromise on patients' rights. But the Democrats are working hard to undo his progress on other fronts, and some of Bush's plans seem to be falling apart without their help. If he doesn't do some damage control from his Crawford ranch, Bush might be rebuilding his agenda from the ground up in September.

And don't miss the president changing his vacation plans after the monthlong break earned media snickers and bad poll numbers with the public. Bush is now scheduled to return to Washington on Aug. 31, three days sooner than he originally intended. White House staffers insist that the negative press prompted by the 30-day vacation had nothing to do with the change.

Monday's schedule: On the 17th day of his vacation, the president flies to Milwaukee to speak at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention and tour a Harley-Davidson motorcycle plant.

-- Alicia Montgomery

This day in Bush history

August 20, 1995: The Austin American Statesman reports that Gov. George W. Bush's friendly attitude about increased immigration was earning him foes within his own party. When asked whether he would pursue policies to discourage immigration like those backed by California Gov. Pete Wilson, Bush declared that he wouldn't stand for any "immigrant bashing." When asked if the statement was a political calculation, Bush angrily told a reporter, "I believe it in my heart!"

Burning Bush

Links to the Web's best sites for hardcore Bush watchers.

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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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By Salon Staff

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