Bush Talks Centrist, Moves Right in First Weeks


WASHINGTON, D.C, FEBRUARY 2—With Congress still getting itself together at the end of the president’s second week in office, George W. Bush pushed his cabinet nominees through. Libertarian-leaning Gale Norton won Senate approval to serve as interior secretary, and the antiabortion John Ashcroft skipped over civil rights concerns to become attorney general. With the Ashcroft victory, Bush completed his cabinet just 13 days after his inauguration, compared to the month Clinton needed during his first term.

Working his charming Texas two-step, Bush courted Democratic support for the education package he sent to Congress, then curtsied to conservatives with an administrative rule limiting the financing of abortions abroad.

Energy Policy: In one of his first acts, Bush extended an order requiring other states to sell electricity to power-strapped California, but warned state officials they would ultimately have to solve the problem themselves. Even as California lawmakers readied a bailout plan, Bush used the crisis as an argument for opening national preserves to oil and gas exploration.

Education: Bush would reorganize 50 different funding programs into five general state grants with wide goals: helping disadvantaged kids, improving the quality of teachers, and promoting English proficiency, school safety, and school choice. With no price tag to date, the Bush plan was greeted with enthusiasm by Republicans and many Democrats. Both Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman and Massachusetts’s Teddy Kennedy were upbeat about Bush’s plans, and there was talk of a bipartisan drive. One sticking point is Bush’s limited proposal for school vouchers, which both liberal Dems and conservative Republicans question. Another is the school safety category; it offers Dems an opening to introduce new gun control regs.

Charitable Choice: Aiming to boost plans for expanding faith-based social services, the president wants to broaden the concept of charitable choice, which allows federal support for social programs sponsored by religious groups. The president’s goal is to marry the Christian right’s interest in religion with liberals’ desire to broaden social programs. To make the program work, he wants to expand tax deductions, giving people the right to deduct contributions even if they don’t itemize their returns. The plan is likely to cause a real fight in Congress over the separation of church and state.

Abortion: On January 22, Bush filed a memorandum to the Agency for International Development, banning aid to overseas organizations that either perform or promote abortions as a means of family planning. Clinton had abandoned the reg when he took office in 1993.

Foreign policy: The Bush administration gave the go-ahead on $4 million of funding for Iraqi opposition groups, organized through the Iraqi National Congress, to start insurgency activities inside the country against Saddam Hussein.

Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to receive Milo Djukanovic, the president of Montenegro, who had traveled to Washington to argue for his nation’s independence. Powell’s act was interpreted as a signal that Bush wants to keep what’s left of Yugoslavia together rather than encouraging its breakup. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright had been open to the possibility of Montenegrin independence.