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Bush's agenda may face hurdles

Deficit, Iraq war seen as challenges

WASHINGTON -- From a pending invasion of Fallujah to a proposed overhaul of Social Security, President Bush came out blazing immediately after his victory last week with plans for forceful policy strokes at home and abroad -- suggesting he will waste little time before he begins spending his unexpectedly large reservoir of political capital.

With an expanded Republican majority in Congress, Bush intends to revamp the nation's largest domestic program as soon as possible, and has already talked to aides about plans to "start on Social Security now," as he said last week. Although his most immediate priority is organizing his governing team -- Bush is spending this weekend at Camp David working on changes to his Cabinet -- the president is also laying the groundwork to request about $70 billion in additional spending for Iraq as early as January, as well as to renew the drive for his stalled energy bill.

All the while, the US military is ramping up strikes on Iraqi insurgents ahead of elections there next year -- after holding off for months during the presidential campaign here.

But Bush's full-speed-ahead approach, despite his strong victory last Tuesday, has yet to take into account serious hurdles that may be beyond his control. The deficit is soaring. Some congressional Republicans are less eager to reorganize Social Security. The continuing combat in Iraq, not to mention the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks, threatens to consume much of the political oxygen he might need to push a bold agenda across Capitol Hill.

"The number one danger, of course, is that Iraq will implode," University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato said. "If it ever really became critical, it could just take over his agenda. And if the inevitable Supreme Court appointment comes early in the term, that could also be the jolly green giant that ate his agenda, because it will unleash so many emotions on the right and the left."

At the same time, Bush has to contend with a daunting historical precedent: From Nixon to Reagan to Clinton, two-term presidents have often endured their darkest hours in the latter half of their tenure. Even before the election, the White House faced ongoing investigations into the energy firm Halliburton and the leaked name of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame, and critics see an opportunity for more. "Their essentially turning the keys over to the special interests is almost certainly going to result in investigations and scandals," said John Podesta, who was chief of staff in the second Clinton administration.

In the early days of his second term, at least, political analysts said they think Bush will enjoy a brief honeymoon and they suggest he move quickly to take advantage of that rapidly closing window. Bush seems ready to jump: Republicans in Congress said they started discussing the Social Security overhaul even before the election, and expect a White House proposal for creating private investment accounts to land on Capitol Hill early next year.

The exact details of the plan -- and how Bush would pay for it -- are unclear. Bush has repeatedly cited the results of a bipartisan commission he appointed, headed by the late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as the model for his Social Security vision. But the commission put forward three plans, and Bush has not endorsed any of them. Moreover, he has not said how he would pay an estimated $1 trillion to $2 trillion in transition costs, perhaps the greatest burden to implementing any Social Security overhaul.

Whichever plan Bush chooses, the goal is to make Social Security solvent decades from now by lifting the burden of younger workers by letting them invest some of their payroll taxes in private accounts that will eventually fund their own retirements.

But the deficit could emerge as a major hurdle, not only to changes in Social Security but also other items on Bush's domestic agenda, especially simplifying the tax code. And the deficit was a campaign promise in its own right: Bush repeatedly promised to cut the deficit in half by the end of his second term. Based on current policies, few economists expect that to happen. Global Insight, the Waltham economic forecasting firm, projects the deficit will decrease only slightly to about $350 billion in 2009, from just more than $400 billion in fiscal 2004.

On nearly every domestic issue, Congress is an even friendlier place for Bush now than in his first term, when it was almost always GOP-controlled and largely acquiesced to his demands, particularly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The larger Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate make the basic math test easier for the president, who will have a comfortable majority of 55 Republican senators with which to work.

Still, Republicans do not have the 60 votes needed to break Democratic filibusters. At the same time, the new Southern GOP senators in several cases will be replacing Democrats -- such as retiring Senator Zell Miller -- who often voted with Republicans anyway, meaning the GOP pickup may not be as dramatic as it immediately appears.

In the case of the stalled energy bill -- a sweeping package designed to increase production of gas, oil, nuclear, and some alternative energy -- it is unclear whether there will be enough supporters to halt a filibuster. Last time around, the measure failed, with supporters on its last vote falling three votes short of the number needed to beat a filibuster.

Republicans hope the GOP's four-person pickup would reverse the result. But three departing Democrats -- Senators Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Miller, and John Breaux of Louisiana -- voted for the measure, as did two departing Republicans, Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois. The latter two were replaced by Democrats, who may not support the package, noted Frank Maisano, an energy industry lobbyist -- meaning the bill may still be stalled.

On Social Security reform, Bush may also face a tough fight on Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers are already hearing protests from constituents about a Medicare prescription drug bill that did not provide benefits as quickly and comprehensively as promised. Historically, Congress has been reluctant to tamper with Social Security, known as the third rail of American politics because of its importance to senior voters.

Bush may also run into roadblocks from moderates and fiscal conservatives in his own party who are reluctant to approve big tax cuts and spending programs. And while Republican lawmakers were loyal to Bush in the first term, there may be a backlash to the heavy-handed lobbying from the White House.

"People now think he has a mandate and will steamroll everybody," said Representative Jose Serrano, Democrat of New York. But "a lot of his own people will say, 'this is what you had to do to get elected; now it's about a legacy.' I don't think they are going to be as committed to his legacy as much as they are going to be committed to their own legacy," Serrano said.

Then there is foreign policy -- an arena with overwhelming challenges and high-profile potentials to undercut Bush's legacy. Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, once named the "axis of evil" by Bush, remain on his radar.

While Bush must contend with a deepening nuclear threat in Iran and North Korea, Iraq presents the greatest opportunity for quick action in the early part of Bush's second term -- or earlier -- advisers and policy specialists said. Bush insists there will be elections in Iraq by January, despite violence so severe that many aid groups are withdrawing.

In Fallujah, occupied by insurgents for months, the US military and its Iraqi counterparts have laid the groundwork for an invasion that could happen in a matter of days.

Globe staff reporters Robert Gavin, Michael Kranish, and Farah Stockman contributed to this report.

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