Bush's Two Sides

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When members of Congress pay a visit to the White House these days to talk with the President about HMO reform, the lawmakers are never sure which George W. Bush will show up. Will it be the distracted Bush of a June 27 meeting with moderate Republicans--the Bush who seemed to be doodling on his notepad and parroting the talking points of his aides? Or will it be the other fellow, the impassioned advocate of a July 11 sitdown, whose nuanced arguments surprised some people who had also been at the June meeting? The first time, "he was just going through the motions," says Representative Peter King of New York. But two weeks later, he "was a different person." When King challenged Bush's commitment to passing a patients' bill of rights, the President didn't waiver. He vowed again to veto the Democratic version if it reached his desk, but insisted he wanted a bill he could sign. "I wouldn't be wasting everyone's time," Bush said. "This is in play. We can win this. The votes are there if we can get them. But we've got to work." Convinced that only the President's version had a chance to become law, King switched sides. He is backing Bush.

The President needs about 20 Peter Kings this week--and as many convincing performances from himself--if he hopes to change the momentum in the patients' rights debate. The Senate has already passed a Democratic bill that gives Americans broad new powers to sue health providers who deny them proper care in both federal and state court. The House version of that bill has 10 to 20 more supporters than the much more restrictive measure that Bush favors, which started out barring suits in state court, where juries often hand fat damage awards to plaintiffs. House G.O.P. leaders put off a vote last week when they realized that Bush's bill would lose. But Bush still thinks he can change enough minds to win. If he gets close, House leaders will hold a vote this week.

Patients' rights, in other words, is the first big test in the second chapter of Bush's presidency--the part of the story where the hero gets tested. In the first six months of his term, Bush's biggest wins--tax cuts and education reform--were issues he grasped with an almost theological passion. But with the Senate now in Democratic hands and the House roiled by newly energized G.O.P. moderates willing to buck their President, Bush faces a coming wave of battles that he can't easily win. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle will be pushing a Medicare prescription-drug benefit and a minimum-wage increase. And the House moderates, who last week forced Bush to abandon his attempt to lower standards for arsenic in drinking water, will soon have him scratching for votes on trade, energy and government-spending bills. He won't win over the moderates by enunciating broad principles; he'll have to debate them point by point and negotiate line by line. The determined, dealmaking Bush will have to show up every time.

He's showing up now. As each wavering House member listens to the President make his case on the patients' rights bill, Bush cannot afford to leave misimpressions. Lately he has been trying his best to apply direct pressure. In House majority leader Dennis Hastert's office on Thursday, Bush pitched wavering members of the New Jersey delegation. Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood, chief sponsor of the version Bush can't stand, was finally called in that day for his first face-to-face chat in the Oval Office. Bush phoned him again Friday. After working out what Bush thought might be a compromise--allowing patients to sue their HMOs in state court but under federal guidelines--the President phoned Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, the godfather of the opposition. "I really want to sign something," Bush said. "I hope you won't dismiss this out of hand." Kennedy and his team did dismiss it, but Bush is still in there selling.

So far, his game doesn't conjure memories of Lyndon Baines Johnson. But the White House never promised that this President would ride herd on Congress like L.B.J. did. Instead, Bush was supposed to succeed with the congenial approach that served him so well in Texas. His charm and people skills were supposed to survive the trip North, bust gridlock, untie policy knots like Social Security reform. His aides are still besotted. "I just wish you could watch him," one of them gushes about Bush's work this week.

People are watching. The patients' rights outcome will determine whether Bush's frequent public veto threats amount to a smart negotiating ploy or a public relations blunder. Will he prevail or be seen as a servant of the hmos? Democrats, of course, hope Bush fails to find the votes he needs, because that would sap his political power and prove he can't use the Republican House as a bulwark against the Democratic Senate. Republicans see the battle as a test of how much air support they can expect from Bush in the fights to come. Is he willing to open every window, try every angle, scamper up every avenue to win the close ones? "It gets tougher," says Republican Representative Chris Shays, a sponsor of the campaign-finance-reform bill that Bush opposes, which is likely to resurface this fall. "All the issues that we knew would be a problem are coming up now."

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