Bush leaves for 'working holiday' to prepare for Senate challenges

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As President George Bush began a month's summer holiday in his home state of Texas, senior Democrats warned yesterday that they would use their control of the Senate to kill his controversial energy Bill opening up Alaska's national wildlife refuge for oil drilling.

With wins in the House last week on the energy measure and the so-called "Patient's Bill of Rights", the President headed home to his ranch at Crawford, near Waco, in what even his adversaries concede is remarkably good political shape. But his departing claim to have broken "six years of legislative gridlock" in the capital had a distinctly premature ring.

That gridlock is likely to set in again with a vengeance when Congress reassembles in September, and the two Bills go to the Senate. Yesterday, Senator Joseph Lieberman, last year's losing Democratic vice-presidential candidate, was emphatic: the energy Bill was "dead in the Senate", and his party would stage a filibuster if necessary to ensure its demise.

Similar difficulties will await Mr Bush's healthcare legislation, which expands patients' rights in health insurance plans but limits their right to bring lawsuits. But for the moment a much-mocked president can feel fairly pleased with himself.

His approval ratings are solid, and with the $1.3 trillion tax-cut package (for which Americans are now receiving the first rebate cheques), he achieved his main legislative goal quickly and convincingly.

He is also in fine physical condition – a medical on Saturday showed him in the top 2 per cent of Americans for cardiovascular fitness.

Mr Bush has already spent more than a quarter of his presidency at the ranch, and his aides, anxious to dispel any suggestions of laziness, are describing the month off as a "working vacation", which will include several trips to meet voters in other states.

These forays have a clear purpose. In his dealings with Capitol Hill Mr Bush may have proved himself a clever political horsetrader, but the polls show he is still seen as a typical tax-cutting, pro-business conservative Republican. The first man in more than a century to be elected to the White House with a minority of the popular vote, he has failed to win over moderates, and has little appeal to women and minorities.

His aides hope that by meeting voters in informal settings, Mr Bush will finally come across as the "compassionate conservative" he proclaimed himself during the campaign.