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Congressional Republicans Part From Bush on Taxes, Health Care

By Amy Goldstein

and Dana Milbank

After two years of largely lockstep unity, congressional Republicans are parting ways with President Bush on key domestic priorities, jeopardizing the White House’s control over the legislative agenda in the months ahead.

Complaining that they have been inadequately consulted, as policy is designed by administration officials distracted by foreign concerns, GOP lawmakers have begun to draft their own proposals and to distance themselves from some aspects of Bush’s plans for tax cuts, health care and other social policies.

The sharpest dissent has arisen over the White House’s plans to restructure Medicare. Even before the proposal is completed, several senior Republicans have criticized Bush’s anticipated suggestion to offer prescription drug coverage only to elderly people who join doctors’ networks and other private health plans.

At a recent meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other GOP House leaders urged the White House to drop plans to issue a detailed proposal and instead allow Congress to take the lead, according to congressional sources. And Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who wields heavy influence over Medicare policy as chairman of the Finance Committee, said he, too, is no longer deferring to the White House.

Grassley said the White House had “botched” the development and announcement of its plan and caused “needless problems” by failing to confer with him early enough about pitfalls. “We’ve tried to be polite,” Grassley said in an interview, but “I can’t wait until the president presents a program to Congress ... any longer. I’ve got to start right now.”

The congressional frustration comes just three months after Republicans regained control of the Senate and widened their House margin. While it is too early to predict the outcome of Bush’s domestic agenda -- a quick victory in Iraq could give the White House new leverage in Congress -- lawmakers and outside analysts say the administration has lost early momentum through communication lapses, clumsy timing and, in some cases, policy decisions that many Republicans don’t like.

The White House counsels patience. “We are only in the pre-game warm-up period,” said deputy press secretary Scott McClellan. Bush aides said the lack of immediate progress reflects congressional rhythms. Lawmakers first must finish the 2003 spending bills held over from last year, and Senate rules make it difficult for Bush to push any contentious legislation before April. The White House strategy, one aide said, is to “lay a foundation” of domestic proposals to be pressed later in the year.

Still, the start has not been auspicious. Republican leaders have told the White House that the president’s proposal to create new tax-free savings accounts has virtually no chance of passage. Republicans, including a Bush liaison to the House, Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) complained that the idea was sprung on them without consultation.

Half a dozen Republican senators, citing deficit worries, raised objections to Bush’s $670 billion tax-cut proposal, particularly the elimination of taxes on stock dividends. Grassley warned last month that “we may not be able to sell it,” although he sounded a bit more upbeat this week.