Early in the week it looked certain that a bipartisan bill making it easy for patients to sue their HMOs would pass the House. Republican Charlie Norwood, a dentist turned Congressman and a leading voice on the issue, wasn't bowing to constant pressure from Bush. As Norwood shuttled back and forth between the White House and his allies including Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy he promised them he wouldn't sell out.
But on Wednesday that's exactly what he did, shaking hands with Bush in the Oval Office on an ill-defined compromise. And before Norwood could go back to his camp and be persuaded to break his promise (as Administration aides complained he had done before), Bush locked him in. "Charlie's not leaving without the press knowing we have a deal," the President told aides. "I'll walk him to his car and give a thumbs-up if I have to." He didn't have to. Instead he marched Norwood in front of the cameras to make an announcement. There was so much hype about busting gridlock, you'd think Bush had been tussling with a Democrat.
While Norwood was throwing his support behind the President's plan which caps pain-and-suffering and punitive damages at a total of $3 million and allows patients to sue in state court but only under more strict federal guidelines Norwood's allies were throwing their remotes at the TV. "Charlie, how the hell can you do this?" groaned Kennedy when Norwood came back to confront his old gang. Norwood admitted he didn't know the details of the deal he had just made. House G.O.P. leaders rushed the bill to the floor while it was still being written. Democrats denounced it as an industry bill of rights. "If that plan wasn't written by the insurance companies," says Marion Berry of Arkansas, "I'll eat a bug." Senate Democrats vowed that when it got to the House-Senate conference, the White House-backed HMO measure would die. They were making the same promise on Alaskan drilling. "They've said that before," said a White House official.
Bush seemed equally confident and brushed aside warnings that last week's victories would be a distant memory come fall, when Senate Democrats mount their counterattack. But then anyone who takes so much pleasure in the hot wallow of his vacation destination must have thick skin. Bush's 1,600-acre ranch in central Texas is dusty, dry and a world away from his father's preppy enclave in Kennebunkport, Me. "The national media will hate it," Bush gleefully told Republican Senators, "but I'm going where it's 98 degrees average temperature, day and night." His Crawford obsession is something even his most loyal aides don't understand. "He's quite sick, actually," says one. Sick and, for the time being, on a roll.