BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : MARCH 27, 2000 ISSUE
WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Can George W. and Hill Republicans Sing from the Same Hymnal?


Throughout the primaries, George W. Bush has had the overwhelming support of his party's congressional wing. They saw him as a winner and felt comfortable with his message of compassionate conservatism. Now that Bush has the GOP Presidential nomination sewn up, he is looking to those same lawmakers to push an agenda that will boost his candidacy in the fall. But can Bush--the self-styled Washington outsider--find happiness with the Hill GOP?

It could be an awkward marriage. Case in point: At a Mar. 13 rally in Brandon, Miss., Bush told a cheering crowd that ''America wants somebody not of Washington.'' Standing beside him was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a man who has spent his entire adult life on Capitol Hill.

For now, Hill Republicans will grant Bush a pass on the rhetoric. He's facing a nasty fight in the fall, and his coattails already look pretty short. GOP lawmakers don't want him further weakened by the sort of intraparty backbiting that got so bitter in the last days of his primary race with Arizona Senator John McCain.

For his part, Bush is hoping that his congressional allies will push a few measures to embarrass Vice-President Al Gore. One early effort: blaming the Administration for higher gasoline prices. Bush also wouldn't mind getting a few sticky issues out of the way, including some big tax-cut proposals that have flopped on the stump. And at the very least, he'd like the Hill GOP to avoid initiatives that can backfire on his candidacy, such as last year's fumbled effort to trim the popular earned-income tax credit. The goal, says one Bush strategist: ''Try not to do too much razzle-dazzle, take heed of the land mines, and put points on the board when the opportunity comes.''

So far, coordination between congressional leaders and the Bush campaign has been spotty. On some issues, Bush and Hill Republicans are working off the same page. For example, both hope that by sending President Clinton a bill that would reduce the cost of prescription drugs for low-income seniors, they can neutralize what could be a potent Democratic issue. Clinton is also pursuing a Medicare drug benefit for seniors.

And there are other issues on which Bush and Capitol Hill GOPers will find common ground. On education, the Senate has begun work on a measure to convert a popular federal grant into a voucher program--an idea long championed by Bush. And as Clinton renews his assault on lawmakers who side with the National Rifle Assn. against background checks at gun shows, Bush and his congressional allies might endorse trigger locks and other modest curbs on gun use.

TAX TEST. But consensus will be hard to find in several other areas. Many GOP lawmakers, for example, are opposed to a broad expansion of patients' rights, including letting patients sue their managed-care plans. But Bush and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) both favor compromise.

Taxes could turn into a muddle as well. Bush and Capitol Hill Republicans favor a substantial tax cut this year, including such GOP favorites as reducing the marriage penalty and trimming the estate tax. But while Bush would slash taxes by $483 billion over five years, the Hill GOP leadership has decided to make room for only a $150 billion reduction in its budget blueprint. Most Republicans don't want to defend a Texas-size tax cut, especially in the face of Democratic claims that they would use Social Security funds to pay for it.

Congressional Republicans will help their standard-bearer when they can. But, terrified of losing control of the House and badly split in their own ranks, don't expect them to go way out on a limb for candidate Bush.

By Howard Gleckman
EDITED BY PAULA DWYER

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