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Bush's campaign allies call in markers

Interest groups that backed George Bush kept their demands quiet during the presidential campaign. No more.

During George W. Bush's presidential campaign, many special interests allied with the Republican Party _ big business, small business, the religious right, foes of abortion, defense hard-liners _ kept a polite distance.

Eager to put a Republican in the White House for the first time in eight years, they refrained from demanding controversial policy concessions from Bush that might have hurt his chances of being elected president.

Now that Bush is securely ensconced in the Oval Office, however, those same groups that believe they helped elect him are beginning to line up outside the White House gates to demand their due. Suddenly, the new president is besieged by a wide range of GOP lobbyists with long lists of special requests that threaten to distract Bush from his priorities.

"A lot of Bush supporters have invested a lot of time and money in electoral politics over the past few years, and they want their payoff," notes Burdett A. Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist who studies special interest groups. "A lot of those people see Bush as being the key to whatever they want."

Just recently, for example, Bush found himself caught up in these crosscurrents involving powerful special interests:

Business groups, unhappy that the president's tax cut proposal does not include any benefits for them, persuaded Bush to support several controversial labor initiatives. These included imposing a cooling-off period in a threatened strike against Northwest Airlines and agreeing to sign a bill that revokes workplace ergonomic rules.

The religious right, which was supposed to be the beneficiary of Bush's so-called "faith-based initiative" that would give government money directly to church-oriented social welfare projects, began to back away from the idea after it was unveiled with great fanfare. In response, Bush put this priority initiative on the back burner.

Coal, gas and electric power industry executives blew a fuse when they learned that Bush intended to make good on a campaign pledge to impose new regulations on emissions of carbon dioxide. Bush backed away from the plan.

Anti-abortion activists, who were rewarded for their support early in the Bush administration when the president cut off family planning funds to international groups, have recently returned to the White House demanding more. This time they want the president to help them enact a law that would impose special penalties on people who harm a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman.

As Loomis sees it, every new president has to learn how to juggle special interest politics, and none of them is particularly skilled at it when they enter the White House. But he adds that Bush's learning curve has been especially steep since the special interests gave him a pass during the election season.

"No matter how experienced your appointees are, a newly elected president is going to be overwhelmed by the number of people seeking something from you," Loomis said. "It's got to be a shock because you've never before had the capacity to say something and it becomes policy."

By failing to hold these special interest demands at arm's length, Loomis said, Bush has made some new enemies in Congress among Democrats, whose support he needs to enact his No. 1 legislative priority: a $1.6-trillion tax cut. Therefore, he said, Bush's supporters might be working against their interests by demanding a payback too soon.

"Bush should have told them, "The best thing that can happen for you is for me to be president for the next eight years. If you want to succeed in the long run, you should let me have some success in the short term,' " Loomis said. "But trying to get people who have been out of power for eight years to adopt a long-term horizon is really a tough sell."

For Bush, perhaps his most embarrassing run-in with special interests centered on a promise he made during the campaign to require power plants to limit carbon dioxide. Until recently, the president was unaware that that proposal, which was hailed by environmentalists, ran against the wishes of the electric power, oil and coal industries that supported his campaign.

When these executives raised a fuss, Bush admitted he did not understand the political implications of his proposal during the campaign. This came as news to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, who was preparing to act on the campaign proposal. Bush announced he would not pursue any limitations on carbon dioxide emissions.

Critics pounced on Bush, not only for breaking his campaign promise but also for demonstrating a lack of understanding of the issues.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said the president was insulting the intelligence of the American people by claiming the reversal was due to the power shortage in California. Miller said it was "a strong indication that the Bush administration is kowtowing to the oil and coal industry and is not listening to science or public opinion."

Environmentalists were furious with Bush, of course, but the decision is unlikely to affect his popularity. Elliott Negin, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he did not know any environmentalists who voted for the Republican candidate in November.


from religious right

The president also was blindsided by the unexpected second-guessing he has received from religious right leaders about his faith-based initiative. Bush unveiled the plan only days after his inauguration, assuming it would meet with cheers from the conservative Christians who supported his campaign.

Instead, the Rev. Pat Robertson expressed misgivings about the proposal on the grounds that it would provide support not only for conservative Christian social projects but also for programs run by groups like the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church and the Hare Krishnas.

Bush's opponents were delighted. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a longtime opponent of the faith-based initiative, hailed the White House decision to put the program on hold after Robertson's attack as a victory for liberals who oppose it as a violation of the separation of church and state.

"We've just finished round one, and the Bush team is staggering back to their corner," Lynn declared. "The White House threw only a couple of punches, and the folks in Bush's corner are already reaching for the smelling salts. . . . The criticism of the plan is obviously taking a toll on the administration."

New demands from the anti-abortion lobby also caught Bush off guard. White House officials assumed these folks had been placated by Bush's early reversal of the Clinton administration's support for international family planning agencies.

Not only do the abortion foes want to enact a ban on so-called "partial birth" abortions, they have developed a new list of legislative initiatives as well. Although the list does not include an effort to overturn the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade abortion ruling, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said a bill to protect fetuses of pregnant women from violence is an effort to establish a legal principle contrary to Roe that would recognize the unborn child as a separate human being.

Perhaps it was to be expected that Bush also would find himself squeezed between the demands of labor and industry, as every president does early in their tenure. Nor was it surprising that the Republican decided to align himself with business against organized labor.

Still, AFL-CIO officials said Bush's assault on their interests was far more sweeping than they had expected. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney complained that "attacks on workers, their unions and their work and family agenda are under way in virtually every sector of the government."

In addition to supporting the end of ergonomics regulations and the cooling-off period in the Northwest Airlines labor dispute, Bush repealed four pro-labor federal contracting rules that had been in existence since the Nixon presidency.

In return, organized labor pledged to redouble its efforts to defeat Bush's proposed budget and tax cut, which Sweeney characterized as "the most anti-working family budget in recent history."