Top Republican splits with Bush on the "lockbox."

By Salon Staff

Published September 7, 2001 7:22PM (EDT)

Daily line

"We remain confident of the strength and persuasiveness of our position."
--White House spokeswoman Anne Womack, defending the administration's refusal to release information about who Vice President Cheney met with while crafting Bush's energy plan.

Bush buzz

There could be a real controversy growing for the White House, as Vice President Dick Cheney has again refused requests from the General Accounting Office to reveal names of the individuals he met with in developing the White House energy policy, and the administration is prepared to invoke executive privilege to keep the information secret. That gives the GAO little choice but to take the matter to court or drop the request it first made back in April.

The agency is investigating how the energy task force, headed by former energy executive Cheney, drafted its energy plan. The GAO has demanded the names of all the business executives and lobbyists who met with the task force and the White House to express their views on the issue. Critics, including Democrats, have alleged that the energy industry had far too great a sway on the task force. Though Bush vowed to avoid the legal fray that mired his predecessor, this could be the first suit to entangle his administration.

The president is also trying to hold his ground on protecting the Social Security surplus, but the Democrats aren't making it easy for him, and neither are some prominent members of his own party.

At a Thursday hearing, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, suggested that Congress and the president might dip into the Social Security surplus to cover the budget. Citing his conversations with more than a dozen economists, Domenici declared that there was no compelling fiscal reason to honor the federal retirement program's "lock box." In the face of the senator's remarks, Bush and several congressional Republicans renewed their commitment to leave the Social Security surplus alone. But a pair of influential Republicans backed Domenici: Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel and Rep. Tom Davis, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

It won't help the president's standing with the elderly that a federal judge has tossed out a major element of his prescription drug policy. The court ruled that the Bush administration overstepped its authority when it implemented plans to create discount cards for seniors' prescription purchases without going through Congress. Combine that failure with questions about the Social Security surplus and a new administration plan to relax federal standards governing nursing homes, and the Democrats have plenty of material to fuel accusations that Bush doesn't care about older Americans.

If Bush is in danger of appearing cold to seniors, he's also taking a risk of seeming too friendly to illegal immigrants. Though elements in his own party have put the brakes on administration efforts to grant legal status to illegal Mexican immigrants, Bush's words to reporters on Thursday betrayed an eagerness to move forward with at least a limited amnesty. Perhaps inspired by the presence of his friend and ally, Mexican President Vicente Fox, Bush expressed enthusiasm for allowing employed Mexican illegal immigrants to stay in this country without penalty, and to eliminate legal sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants.

While such statements likely warmed Fox's heart, they probably had the opposite effect on conservatives who see Bush's push for immigration reform as sacrificing law-and-order for a few Hispanic votes.

On both the budget and the immigration issue, Bush may be taking big risks by allowing a gap to persist between his statements and those of other members of his party. It's unclear how the White House might have influenced Domenici's remarks on Thursday, but in August, Bush let Daniels and economic policy advisor Lawrence Lindsey downplay the sanctity of the Social Security surplus at a time when the president himself was promising to leave it alone. And Bush knows that his party won't allow him to follow through on most of his ideas about amnesty for Mexican illegal immigrants, but he persists in making pro-amnesty statements.

And don't miss the firestorm provoked by Bush's Wednesday night fireworks display. Though the president thought a surprise fireworks show at 11 p.m. was a perfect gift for visiting Mexican President Vicente Fox, many shocked and disoriented Washingtonians didn't agree. The city government reported that several 911 calls came in from citizens who mistook the noise for gunfire, and that several cops initially made the same mistake. The Washington-based watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, meanwhile, questioned the spending of close to $200,000 on a private fireworks show during an economic slowdown. Not to mention keeping news of the show private, so that only Bush's guests -- and not the public -- could enjoy the enormous display.

Friday schedule: The president and first lady attend the National Book Festival Gala at the Library of Congress.

-- Alicia Montgomery

This day in Bush history

Sept. 7, 1991: President Bush devotes his Saturday radio address to introducing Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas to the American people. The president urges the public to tune into the upcoming confirmation hearings in the Senate to hear Thomas' inspiring personal story. "When you hear or see coverage of those hearings, think of your sons, you daughters, your loved ones, and their voyage into a tough world.Then think of this extraordinary man who conquered depravation without self-pity or complaint," Bush says.

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