Scandals Haunt Bush

President Bush frequently says he has “a lot of work to do” during his last three years in office, but a slew of unexpected controversies is keeping him from sticking with the agenda he had set.

Already confronted by the problematic aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita while maintaining focus on the war in Iraq, the White House now finds itself forced to devote more time than expected to promote the candidacy of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and to deal with the uproar over the outing of a CIA agent.

Such factors have essentially sidetracked the president’s agenda for the remainder of the year and, with polls consistently showing his approval ratings dipping below 40 percent, some items on his to-do list might prove difficult to resurrect.

Bush, in a Rose Garden press conference last week, all but conceded that his goal of reshaping Social Security will not, in all likelihood, receive congressional action this year.

Receiving less notice, even though the issue is almost as close to the president’s heart, is Congress’ apparent disinterest in dealing with permanent repeal of the estate tax, something the administration has sought since early on.

Bush succeeded in temporarily killing what he characterized as the “death tax.” Under a law passed in 2001, the levy will gradually recede until it disappears completely in 2010. But the tax is slated to return by 2011 unless Congress takes specific action _ something it has shown a reluctance to do.

The problem is money. The Congressional Budget Office reported that the estate tax contributed about $20 billion to the nation’s coffers in 2003. With the cost of rebuilding New Orleans and the region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina expected to hit $300 billion, and the war in Iraq costing considerably more than originally anticipated, some lawmakers suggest the time isn’t right to permanently eliminate the tax.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which handles tax legislation, recently told reporters that it’s “a little unseemly to be talking about doing away with or enhancing the estate tax at a time when people are suffering.”

With its legislative agenda lagging, the White House is engaged in a full-court press to save the Miers nomination in the face of a conservative rebellion that the president and his aides did not anticipate. Bush has spent much of the past two weeks defending the selection of his White House counsel, and members of his inner circle, including strategist Karl Rove, have been calling and meeting with their usual allies to rally support.

Rove, considered the president’s top adviser and described by some insiders as “indispensable,” has also been forced to shift his focus to the grand jury looking into the outing of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson. Rove has been called before the panel for a fourth time, and special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has offered no assurances that Rove, at this point, is not a subject of the probe.

Asked whether Rove remains involved in the pressing issues facing the White House, Scott McClellan, the president’s press secretary, tersely responded, “He continues to perform his duties.”

(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)