White House: Domestic policies on track

By KATHY A. GAMBRELL, White House reporter  |  Oct. 23, 2001 at 7:14 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and anxiety over a series of anthrax-tainted letters have overshadowed President Bush's domestic agenda, which took center stage in the first eight months of his administration. But the White House says its plans are still on track -- though a slower one -- for ultimate passage.

In the months after he assumed office, Bush quickly shipped his streamlined domestic policy agenda to Congress, followed shortly thereafter by his $1.9 trillion federal budget proposal. But in the five weeks since the terror attacks, those spending priorities have taken a back seat to the administration's mission of finding and bringing to justice the people responsible for the tragedy.

That has delayed action on the president's education reform package, faith-based initiative, his program to give disabled workers better access to government jobs, and the 13 appropriations bills that fund the 14 Cabinet-level agencies.

White House officials say that the domestic policy agenda has become focused on handling the repercussions of the attacks -- economic impact, dislocated worker assistance, the $15 billion airline bailout package, the anti-terrorism and aviation security bills.

Still, the White House is "working hard" to advance the measures that were at the forefront of the administration's agenda, officials said.

What did pass Congress successfully was the president's coveted 10-year, $1.35 billion tax relief package, which sent rebate checks to millions of America's taxpayers. Its aim was to avert the slowdown in the economy by placing cash in the public's pockets. After the attacks, the hint of an economic rally seen in August all but disappeared. Bush, as a result, urged Congress to pass another $60 billion in tax cuts. He also supports Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's call for an economic stimulus package between $60 billion and $75 billion.

Bush remains focused on the education reform bill that passed the House and Senate and was scheduled for debate in conference committee this week. Both versions of the education reform package provide more money for charter schools and boost university-level math and science programs. Each bill provides nearly $1 billion for reading programs aimed at making certain every child is reading by the third grade. While the House bill gives elementary and secondary schools $24 billion in funding, the Senate bill would provide $33 billion.

The White House remains "actively engaged" in gaining passage of the faith-based initiative that would allow religious groups and churches access to federal taxpayer dollars to run social programs such as drug treatment or shelters. White House official said they are working closely with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who in March introduced the Savings Opportunity and Charitable Giving Act, a measure drafted to encourage charitable giving.

The Patients' Bill of Rights passed both the House and the Senate and is still awaiting final negotiations. If signed into law, it would for the first time authorize the federal government to define the relationship between patients and providers, plus specify how disputes between them could be resolved in court.

Talks between House and Senate negotiators were expected to begin when Congress returned from August recess. The House version of the bill supported by Bush and GOP lawmakers restricts the amount of damage awards a patient could receive from their health maintenance organization to $1.5 million. The Senate version allows punitive damages up to $5 million.

The president had also vowed to revamp both Social Security and Medicare, the trust funds for retirees. Democrats feared that those funds would be used to bolster disappearing federal budget surplus coffers. Democrats had charged in August that the budget surplus that was down to $158 billion in August from more than $275 billion early in the year was due to his tax cut.

Bush had vowed never to tap into those trust funds unless the nation was in a recession, a national emergency or at war. Since Sept. 11, there has been little debate that those conditions have all been met.

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