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War, Economy Top Bush Agenda

War and recession top President Bush's agenda as he shifts into his second year with an eye on congressional elections and his own re-election down the road.

Health care, Social Security and welfare changes, prescription drug coverage for seniors and a new farm bill will wait like wallflowers for the president's attention.

Elbowing into the mix are foreign policy obligations that will take Mr. Bush from Asia to Mexico in the next two months, and then to Russia, Canada, the Czech Republic and potentially two dozen more countries before year's end.

Mr. Bush marks the one-year point of his presidency on Sunday.

Political obligations will have him stumping across the country this year for Republican candidates in House and Senate races that will decide control of Congress in November and his ability to carry a record of legislative accomplishment into any 2004 re-election campaign.

Just as he began last year almost exclusively focused on tax cuts and education reform, Mr. Bush neatly summed up his 2002 agenda in two sentences this week: "My biggest job is to prevent the enemy from hitting us again," he told Missourians, promising a relentless anti-terrorism campaign.

And, he said, "We can do a better job in Washington, D.C., of addressing this economic downturn."

With pollsters finding voters preoccupied by the economy and terrorism, Mr. Bush is piecing together a to-do list almost exclusively sounding those themes. They will echo strongly in both his Jan. 29 State of the Union address and the spending plan he subsequently submits to Congress, White House communications director Dan Bartlett said.

"The big, big issues that are the focus of the American people will be the focus of the president and his budget," Bartlett said.

The president is proposing big increases for the Pentagon and a roughly $15 billion boost — about double this year's total — for domestic security programs like airline safety, bioterrorism prevention and local law enforcement.

Mr. Bush is also pressing to resuscitate the economic stimulus package of tax cuts and unemployment aid that died in the Democratic-controlled Senate last month.

New to his agenda this year is an initiative to restrain lawsuits, something he will talk about in his State of the Union speech. Aides say the president wants to rein in class-action lawsuits and medical malpractice litigation, as well as limit small-business and product liability.

Constraining his game plan is a recession budget, with record surpluses forecast to dissolve into deficits this year.

Mr. Bush has bound himself with a "not over my dead body" vow to fight any Democratic attempts to cover 2002 spending items by delaying or rolling back the $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut that he pushed through Congress last spring.

Mr. Bush and his advisers say he will also push for these items, all tailored to fit under the rubric of national and economic security:

  • Free trade. Mr. Buswants Congress, at long last, to give him authority to negotiate a hemisphere-wide free-trade agreement as a remedy for unemployment. "If you trade more, there are more jobs available for hardworking Americans," he said.
  • Education reforms. "A second way to make sure we've got sustained economic growth is to make sure our public school system works well," Mr. Bush said. Although he already signed far-reaching changes, he will continue to talk about them in terms of the law's proper implementation partly as a way to remind voters of his accomplishment.
  • Energy plan. An energy policy focused on production and new drilling, including in an Arctic wildlife refuge. American dependence on foreign oil is as dangerous as if the country relied on imported food, Bush said. "It would mean you're beholden to somebody else's farmers to feed your people."
  • Compassion. Mr. Bush has repackaged his plan to stimulate charitable giving through bigger tax breaks and to increase the involvement of religious groups in government social service programs. He will try to revive community and civility initiatives that were derailed after Sept. 11. "A soldier in the war on terror is somebody who mentors a child," he said.

    White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Mr. Bush also remains interested in getting senior citizens a discount card for prescription drugs. And White House deputy chief of staff Josh Bolten has quietly reopened negotiations with Senate Democrats on stalled protections for managed-care patients.

    Mr. Bush will certainly weigh in, too, on this year's reauthorizations of the farm bill and the 1996 welfare overhaul, Bartlett said.

    How to accomplish any of this in a highly charged election year will be the subject of talks when the president huddles with congressional Republicans at their annual retreat in the mountains of West Virginia at the end of this month.

    © MMII The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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