Bush Team Starts Democratic Outreach

White House Tries to Mend Fences After Bad Blood Leftover From Last Election

Posted February 28, 2003 at 6:17pm

Amid charges that President Bush has focused too much of his outreach on Republicans, the White House has started quietly lobbying moderate Senate Democrats to support the administration’s $674 billion tax-cut plan.

Administration officials held private meetings last month with a handful of Democrats, including Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), John Breaux (La.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.).

The one-on-one meetings, as well as telephone calls, are primarily designed to promote Bush’s tax cut. But White House officials plan to expand the lobbying effort this year to try to lock in Democratic support for other key components of Bush’s agenda.

“Everything we are doing is focused on getting a strong bipartisan vote on the growth package, and then every other that comes down the road,” said a senior administration official. “We’re just doing what we can to start laying the groundwork.”

Several Democrats suggested the administration needs to start rebuilding the bridges it burned late last year when the White House played an active role in defeating two Democrats who supported Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax-cut plan in June 2001.

The White House tried to defeat Baucus and Democratic Sens. Jean Carnahan (Mo.), Max Cleland (Ga.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Robert Torricelli (N.J.) by recruiting challengers and directing resources to their campaigns. Carnahan and Cleland were defeated in November, and Landrieu won a bitter runoff election in December. Personal ethical questions forced Torricelli into retirement.

“I think they have done a good job of it, in my case, thus far,” Nelson said. “But given the fact they went after so many moderates last time, I think they started out in the basement and are trying to get to the first floor.

“They are going up the stairs right now … they have a daunting task,” added Nelson, who met recently with Glenn Hubbard, outgoing chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors.

Hubbard also met with Bayh to discuss the the tax plan — a meeting the Indianan suggested was probably triggered by his willingness not to immediately shut the door on the plan.

“I can only assume it is because I had made some public comments to the fact I was open-minded,” Bayh said. “I just didn’t start off with a knee-jerk, kick-them-in-the-shins kind of reaction to the initial proposal.”

An administration official described the meeting with Bayh as productive, but Hubbard, one of the White House’s chief emissary’s to the Hill on the tax package, resigned his position last week to return to academia. He will be replaced by Harvard University professor Gregory Mankiw.

Nelson said he is confident “someone will emerge” from the White House to take Hubbard’s role in helping sell the plan on the Hill.

In fact, Stephen Friedman, director of the National Economic Council, met with Baucus last week to try to sell the Montana Democrat on the tax-cut plan.

“It is clear this is part of their full-court press,” said Baucus, the ranking member on the Finance Committee. “Support of the package, especially for the dividend provision, seems to be lagging.

“He explained his feelings of why he thought the package was going to promote growth and why the dividend proposal was, in his judgement, very good,” Baucus said.

But Baucus and all the other Democrats the White House is wooing are balking at eliminating the double taxation on dividends, saying it will not spur short-term growth.

With the exception of Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), who is a lead co-sponsor of Bush’s tax-cut bill, the White House has not convinced any other Democrats to sign on.

“They talk about this huge lobbying effort and I just don’t see it,” said a senior Democratic Senate aide.

While Nelson said he doesn’t think Hubbard’s absence will hurt the White House’s efforts to promote the plan, the recent loss of Nicholas Calio, the White House’s top Congressional liaison, hasn’t helped.

“I think the [White House] suffered from the loss of Nick Calio initially in not getting to even many of their Republicans with their tax plan before releasing it,” Nelson said.

Several moderate Republicans have also voiced skepticism over parts of the plan, including Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and George Voinovich (Ohio).

But Nelson pointed out that Calio’s replacement, David Hobbs, and the White House’s top Senate liaison, Ziad Ojakli, have eased the transition.

In addition to the tax-cut meetings, Hobbs recently met with Breaux to discuss Medicare, one of several issues White House officials will be talking to Senate Democrats in the coming months. Another issue the White House has identified in an effort to seek bipartisan support include Project Bioshield, a program that would quickly make vaccines available to treat biological agents such as anthrax and ebola. Bush touted the merits of this proposal during a speech Friday at the Department of Homeland Security.

The White House is also expected to try to convince at least some Democrats to back the president on issues such as prescription drugs and global AIDS funding.

“It is a good strategy,” said a senior Senate Republican aide. “It is always wise to build as broad as set of relationships … to talk aggressively and repeatedly with the minority.”

While Democrats repeatedly criticize the Bush administration for securing one or two Democratic votes on an issue and labeling it as bipartisan, at least one Democratic leader acknowledged the White House is engaging is smart politics.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” said Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “[President Bill] Clinton did that and I don’t see a thing wrong that they have a message to deliver to a Democrat. Let them do it.

“That is part of the game and if somebody can be persuaded to drop off the team, then that is the way it is,” he added.