Bush: Disaster aid is first priority

/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush, pledging to work with new members of Congress, said Monday that the first order of business for Congress would be to approve disaster aid for the millions of people in South Asia.

At a reception at the White House, Bush said Washington was “sometimes too partisan and too political. My hope is that we can show the nation that we can come together to achieve big things for the good of the country.”

The president has pledged $350 million in disaster aid and has held out the prospect for more assistance. “We will help in a way where the aid makes a difference,” Bush said.

Battle lines already are being drawn on Bush’s second-term goals to adjust tax laws, partly privatize Social Security and limit medical liability lawsuits. “I want to confront problems, and I will,” Bush said. “I’ll call upon Congress to take on big issues.”

Although fellow Republicans gained four seats in the Senate and three in the House in November to boost their majorities, there is no consensus on Capitol Hill waiting to embrace Bush’s domestic proposals.

January calendar is full
Pitching his domestic agenda is just one item on Bush’s jam-packed January calendar. He must fill vacancies in his Cabinet, prepare his inaugural and State of the Union addresses, finish a 2006 budget proposal and keep close watch on the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq.

Bush travels Wednesday to Collinsville in Madison County, Ill., known nationally for large awards to plaintiffs in civil lawsuits. Other trips in the works are intended to build momentum for his plan to let younger workers divert some of their payroll taxes into personal investment accounts.

Democrats, many of whom see the accounts as a boon for Wall Street, have said the eventual shortfall in Social Security benefits is “a manageable problem” that does not require extensive overhauls. Bush says the private accounts are the best way to reform the government retirement system, which is projected to start paying out more in benefits than it collects in about 13 years.

“Social Security is a problem that needs to be fixed,” said Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the White House. “Some people think we can wait. That’s a dangerous position to take.”

Last week, AARP, whose 35 million members are age 50 and above, announced a major advertising campaign to oppose the idea. The group contends that the accounts amount to gambling with retirement savings.

Bush has ruled out raising taxes or cutting benefits for those who already receive or soon will get Social Security checks. He has not said how he plans to pay for his plan.

Because payroll taxes fund current retirees’ benefits, the government would have to spend $1 trillion to $2 trillion as a substitute.

It is unlikely that the cost of overhauling Social Security will find its way into the budget for 2006 that the White House will submit to Congress next month.

Bush’s new budget also is not expected to include the billions needed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lawmakers approved $87.5 billion for those operations in the fall of 2003 and $25 billion more last spring.

Bush is expected to request an additional $75 billion to $100 billion early this year, a steep amount given the ballooning deficit.

On tax law, Bush is working to name members of a bipartisan advisory panel that would make recommendations to him. Bush had said he would set up the panel by the end of 2004. Worried that the White House was delaying the appointments and might put off sending a tax proposal to Congress until 2006, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and five other Democrats have written Bush urging immediate action.

Kerik's replacement
Bush also must complete his 15-member Cabinet.

Congress this week is to begin confirmation hearings on nine nominees. But the president is searching for a homeland security chief. Last month, he chose former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik to replace Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, but White House officials who had checked Kerik’s background were left red-faced when he withdrew because of an immigration problem with a housekeeper-nanny.

Bush also needs to name someone to lead the Environmental Protection Agency after he EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt to run the Health and Human Services Department.

Also vacant is the director of national intelligence, a new post, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, where John Danforth stepped down.

Bush is getting ready to deliver two major speeches: his inaugural address Jan. 20 and his annual State of the Union speech to Congress, which will be late this month or in early February.

His main speechwriter, Michael Gerson, was recently hospitalized for a heart-related problem, but his health is not expected to prevent him from working on the two addresses.

The president is turning his focus to domestic issues, but he is keeping a close eye on Iraq, where insurgents are working to disrupt the Jan. 30 elections.

Iraq’s largest Sunni Muslim party has chosen not to participate, and insurgents are continuing their attacks on Iraqi security forces and election workers. The president has acknowledged that “the bombers are having an effect.”

Bush is keeping a close eye, too, on the Jan. 9 voting by Palestinians, who are picking a successor at the Palestinian Authority to the late Yasser Arafat.

Bush has pledged to take a more active role in negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but no details have emerged on how Bush will reinsert himself into the diplomatic puzzle.