The Oval: Delicate Dances

After 60 days on the road, and a prime-time press conference complete with new proposals last week, the White House believed it was finally making progress on Social Security. George W. Bush's aides argued that the new details of "progressive indexation" (or means-tested Social Security) would finally expose the weakness of their Democratic opponents. The Bushies' theory is that the Democrats are going to crack under the pressure of having to propose their own policies for the future of Social Security.

Yet the initial result of Bush's proposals has been to expose divisions among Republicans in Congress about how to deal with any legislation to overhaul the program. Administration officials were thrilled last week when House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas announced plans for a May 12 hearing on Bush's Social Security plan, with the goal of drafting a bill by early June. "That's serious progress," a senior administration official told NEWSWEEK.

Not everyone was so happy, though. A GOP aide says that Thomas didn't give House Republican leaders a heads up on his proposed legislative timetable. That wasn't a problem for Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who wants a detailed bill to use as ammo against Democrats. But Speaker Dennis Hastert has privately expressed concerns about moving a bill so quickly. According to one congressional Republican, Hastert has told fellow lawmakers doesn't want to see the House GOP "go out on a limb" on the eve of the 2006 midterm elections by passing a reform bill that would ultimately die in the Senate. "We've been down that route before on other bills, and it's hurt us," a GOP lawmaker tells NEWSWEEK, citing high-profile battles over bills like President Bush's long-stalled energy plan.

The speaker reiterated his concerns in a closed-door meeting with Republican lawmakers on Tuesday. When questioned about the timing of a bill at a Wednesday press availability, Hastert told reporters that the House GOP hasn't agreed to a set schedule when it comes to the legislation. "Social Security is a pretty important issue ... and when we do it, we want to do it right," Hastert said. "And I'm not saying we're going to be nailed down to any one specific timetable. We want to get the right policy and move it forward."

From Russia, With Love

It was meant to be the central focus of Bush's trip to Europe later this week. Instead, it looks increasingly like the photo op the White House would like to forget. When George W. Bush accepted Vladimir Putin's invitation early this year to go to Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Hitler's defeat, the U.S. and Russian presidents still looked like the best of buddies. Now, the two leaders will meet together in private on Sunday night (at Putin's dacha) but hold no joint press conference, as they did in Bratislava, Slovakia, earlier this year. Instead, Bush will be one of dozens of leaders to visit what used to be the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., walk to the Lenin mausoleum and mount a stage to watch a military parade in Red Square.

The White House hopes the images of such a Soviet-laden day will be forgotten once Bush arrives at his next stop, in Tbilisi, Georgia, the following day. There, Bush's aides are hoping for a crowd of 100,000 in Freedom Square to hear Bush talk about democracy on the march. There are only two problems. First, the crowd's response needs to be better than it was in Bratislava. There, Bush's democracy-heavy speech was greeted with silence or polite applause. That is, until Bush started talking about improving access to U.S. visas, when the crowd cheered wildly.

The second, more important, problem in Tbilisi is that it's a security nightmare. After civil wars in the 1980s and 1990s, there are no less than two violent separatist regions in Georgia that its government doesn't control: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian forces have also tried to attack terrorists, Chechen fighters and terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge. According to the State Department, "regardless of the region in Georgia in which they are planning to travel or visit, American citizens are urged to review their personal security precautions, increase their levels of awareness, and as appropriate, take increased security measures." Moscow might be politically awkward, but it's nothing like the challenge the Secret Service faces in the Georgian capital.

Yet the initial result of Bush's proposals has been to expose divisions among Republicans in Congress about how to deal with any legislation to overhaul the program. Administration officials were thrilled last week when House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas announced plans for a May 12 hearing on Bush's Social Security plan, with the goal of drafting a bill by early June. "That's serious progress," a senior administration official told NEWSWEEK.

Not everyone was so happy, though. A GOP aide says that Thomas didn't give House Republican leaders a heads up on his proposed legislative timetable. That wasn't a problem for Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who wants a detailed bill to use as ammo against Democrats. But Speaker Dennis Hastert has privately expressed concerns about moving a bill so quickly. According to one congressional Republican, Hastert has told fellow lawmakers doesn't want to see the House GOP "go out on a limb" on the eve of the 2006 midterm elections by passing a reform bill that would ultimately die in the Senate. "We've been down that route before on other bills, and it's hurt us," a GOP lawmaker tells NEWSWEEK, citing high-profile battles over bills like President Bush's long-stalled energy plan.

The speaker reiterated his concerns in a closed-door meeting with Republican lawmakers on Tuesday. When questioned about the timing of a bill at a Wednesday press availability, Hastert told reporters that the House GOP hasn't agreed to a set schedule when it comes to the legislation. "Social Security is a pretty important issue ... and when we do it, we want to do it right," Hastert said. "And I'm not saying we're going to be nailed down to any one specific timetable. We want to get the right policy and move it forward."

Roman Holiday

On Wednesday morning, President Bush called Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to again offer condolences over the shooting death last March of an Italian intelligence agent by U.S. troops in Iraq. The call, described as "long and cordial" by Berlusconi's office, came just a few days after Washington and Rome issued reports with very different conclusions about the killing.

According to the White House, Bush expressed continuing regrets over the death of Italian agent Nicola Calipari, who was shot and killed March 4 at a U.S. military checkpoint near the Baghdad airport as he was escorting Italian hostage Giuliana Sgrena to freedom. It was the second time in a month that Bush has offered up condolences to the Italian premier. The two leaders discussed Calipari's death face-to-face last month, when Bush was in Rome to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II.

Yet for all the apologies, Bush and Berlusconi have only agreed to disagree. The United States, in a report issued last weekend, exonerated its troops and pinned the blame on the Italians who allegedly failed to fully inform American officials about the operation to free Sgrena. Italy released its own report Monday, strongly rebutting those allegations and putting the blame on poorly run checkpoints and the inexperience and fatigue of U.S. troops. According to Italian media reports, Berlusconi himself edited and tweaked the report's wording so as not to damage relations with Washington. Yet White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters Wednesday that Bush and Berlusconi did not discuss the reports or their rival conclusions.

Calipari's killing has caused major tensions between the two allies and has prompted calls in Italy for Berlusconi to remove the estimated 3,000 Italian troops now stationed in Iraq. The Italian premier is set to discuss Calipari's death with members of the Italian parliament on Thursday, where he will reportedly resist calls to begin withdrawing Italian troops from Iraq. "We will withdraw the troops when it's necessary to do so," Berlusconi told reporters earlier this week. "There will be no retaliation."

Yet the White House doesn't seem to be taking any chances. During Wednesday's call, Bush was said to have reiterated his condolences and told Berlusconi that Calipari was a "hero" and a victim of a "tragic accidental death." According to McClellan, the two leaders agreed that the situation "wouldn't harm the friendship" between the United States and Italy.

That may not be within their power. A significant minority of Italians believe the death wasn't accidental but intentional, aimed at killing the left-of-center Sgrena. Italian officials admit that even an all-powerful leader like Berlusconi can't ignore that kind of political pressure. Like Bush, Berlusconi can't blame his counterpart, and he can't admit any mistake. In other words, both Bush and Berlusconi want to have it both ways.

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