How George Bush Earned His Summer Vacation

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Home to the range: Bush returned to Texas Saturday

Getting ready for a vacation can be so hectic. It certainly was for George W. Bush last week. While Laura Bush left the White House early to get the ranch in Crawford, Texas, ready for a month-long holiday (one of the longest in presidential history), the President rushed through some last-minute errands. He didn't have to worry about canceling the papers or stopping the mail. He did have to resuscitate his education plan, persuade lawmakers to vote for his industry-friendly energy proposals and get his preferred version of HMO reform through the House. And so a President not known for working overtime managed to grind out a string of victories. The House easily passed Bush's energy package, which includes the Alaska drilling provision the pundits had declared dead. His education plan moved toward resolution; the Senate even passed his $5.5 billion emergency farm-aid bill after Democrats dropped demands for more money. And the President's biggest win — the narrow passage of an Administration-designed compromise on the long-stymied patients' bill of rights — left Democratic leaders sputtering because they were outfoxed on an issue they thought they owned.

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.