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Bone to Pick

White House Watch

George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy were aboard Air Force One last month, flying back to Washington from Boston--where they had just celebrated the signing of Bush's education bill--when the president gave the Massachusetts senator a dog bone. It wasn't just any canine biscuit. On it the president had scrawled a message to Kennedy's black Portuguese water dog, the senatorial pooch who was a constant presence during the yearlong education-bill negotiations: "To Splash, Great job on education. From, Barney and GW." The bone, along with a pen Bush used to sign the bill, are now framed and prominently displayed in Kennedy's conference room, a corny reminder of his shrewd alliance with Bush last year.

Kennedy got a bone, but Bush has gotten a whole lot more. The president has not only erased the once impenetrable advantage Democrats enjoyed on education, but recent polls show the public favoring him over congressional Democrats on this issue by as much as 26 points. A weekly analysis of survey data published by strategists James Carville, Stan Greenberg, and Robert Shrum and widely read by Democrats, warns that Bush's dominance on education and the economy "is the biggest threat to Democratic hopes of recapturing the House and strengthening their grip in the Senate in 2002."

In addition, Bush has turned Kennedy into his favorite applause line and a convenient prop to emphasize his own bipartisan bona fides. Rarely does Bush give a speech these days in which he does not heap praise on the senator for his work on the education bill. And Bush's favorite, endlessly repeated (and likely apocryphal) joke is that the folks at the Crawford coffee shop were shocked to hear him say nice things about Kennedy. All this goodwill peaked during the State of the Union address, when Bush again paid tribute to Kennedy and the chamber rose in a standing ovation.

Bush used Kennedy so successfully, in fact, that many congressional Democrats started to grumble. Some even dubbed the dalliance "part of the Kennedy legacy tour." But last week the contours of Bush's vaunted partnership with the liberal lion appeared to change. Now it is Kennedy who has the upper hand, and the senator is maneuvering to exploit his relationship with Bush on two fronts.

The first is education spending. Last year Kennedy, afraid he would be left out of negotiations between the White House and moderate Democrats, moved to the center and cut an education deal with the president--thus helping to inoculate Bush on the issue. But this year Kennedy is using his own newfound bipartisan credibility to attack the president-- criticizing Bush's new budget for delivering "a severe blow to our nation's schools." Kennedy now plans to stage a series of votes to force Republicans to make painful decisions about how much education funding they are willing to support. "We've now got the chance to go back and go on the offensive and demonstrate to the American public that Democrats are the true champions of education," says a Kennedy aide.

Meanwhile, Kennedy has also quietly positioned himself as the linchpin to any deal on the long-stalled patients' bill of rights. The Bush administration hopes to use the relationship to neutralize another Democratic perennial. But it now appears just as likely that Kennedy will use it to neutralize Bush on the issue.

Pre-9/11, the patients' bill of rights dominated the Washington agenda. A bill sponsored by Kennedy, John McCain, and John Edwards passed the Senate soon after the Democrats took over in May. Then Bush and congressional Republicans successfully amended and passed the House version of the Kennedy bill, forcing the legislation into a conference committee to work out the two chambers' differences. Ever mindful of its domestic agenda, the White House quietly reached out to both McCain and Kennedy shortly after 9/11. The McCain talks led nowhere; but, just as he had on education, Kennedy--relishing his new role as Washington deal-maker--eagerly got to work trying to find some common ground with Bush. Kennedy's top health care wonk, David Nexon, met intermittently in November and December with Bush's senior health care aide, Anne Phelps, in the Old Executive Office Building. Nexon is the Democratic staff director for the Senate committee that deals with health care, and Phelps was previously the Republican staff director, so the two know each other well and have sparred over these issues for years. Nick Calio, Bush's congressional lobbyist, and Josh Bolten, his top policy aide, monitored the talks, which progressed so far that Tom Daschle, fearful that Bush would score an important end-of-the-year victory, reportedly halted the negotiations in December.

Which brings us back to Air Force One. Zipping around the country together last month on their education-bill signing tour, Bush and Kennedy chatted for an hour about the patients' bill of rights. The staff-level talks then resumed in earnest, but last week they again crawled to a standstill. Kennedy and the White House have found some agreement on the right-to-sue provision that has blocked the legislation for years. Their emerging deal would allow lawsuits to be brought against HMOs in state courts using new federal guidelines. Defining those federal guidelines is tricky but, according to those close to the negotiations, surmountable. But the deal has a hit a major roadblock over another issue: whether (or how much) to cap pain and suffering awards to plaintiffs who win suits against HMOs. Democrats don't want any caps, and Bush has previously proposed a $1.5 million limit. Those involved in the discussions say that Senate Democrats have rejected a new Bush proposal that would peg damage awards to age and other variables associated with the plaintiff, arguing that the formula the White House has suggested would not adequately reflect the earning potential of younger people.

This week the talks seemed like they were dying, and Senate aides suggested that Kennedy was considering whether to abandon them altogether. This puts Bush in a bind--and puts his fate in Kennedy's hands. Behind the scenes, the White House has invested more political capital in this bill than in almost any other domestic priority since 9/11. To keep Kennedy at the table and reach a compromise bill Bush can take credit for, the president would have to make significant ideological concessions. If he doesn't, and if Kennedy publicly quits the talks and takes the bill into the legislative black hole of a conference committee--a prospect some Democrats would prefer--it will be a major setback for Bush, signaling that his wartime popularity has little practical effect on his domestic agenda.

That's why late Tuesday afternoon, just a few hours after Kennedy blasted the president's education budget, Calio found time during a frantic day of lobbying on campaign finance reform to stop by Kennedy's office. For now, he's persuaded the senator to stick with the negotiations. But we'll soon find out if Kennedy was the smartest friend Bush ever made or a monster of his own creation.