Cheney is likely to be fitted with pacemaker

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The Bush administration suffered a serious blow yesterday when Vice-President Dick Cheney revealed he is likely to have a pacemaker fitted to correct an overly rapid heartbeat.

It will be his third spell in hospital for heart treatment since last November's election. Mr Cheney, seen by many as the driving force at the White House, will today enter the capital's George Washington Hospital for further tests using an electrocardiogram. If, as is strongly expected, tests indicate an irregular beat, a pacemaker will be fitted.

Mr Cheney said the treatment was nothing more than "an insurance policy. I have no long-term doubts," he told a hastily called press conference at the White House. "The doctors have assured me that there is no reason why either the procedure or the device that is being implanted should in any way inhibit my capacity to function as Vice-President."

However blasé Mr Cheney wished to appear, there is no underestimating the potential seriousness of this latest health scare. He has had four heart attacks since 1978, the most recent last November when doctors inserted a small metal coronary stent, to prop open an almost totally blocked artery.

In March he had an operation to clear a clogged artery while in 1988 he had quadruple bypass surgery.

The decision to go ahead with today's test was made after two weeks of monitoring in which doctors found "four brief asymptomatic episodes of abnormally fast heart beats". Mr Cheney said: "I can't feel anything when it happens."

The news will again focus attention on Mr Cheney's ability to function as Vice-President and as George Bush's de facto chief adviser. He is probably the most powerful US Vice-President in modern history and his influence is central to much of the legislative programme, particularly in regard to energy. He also sits in on the President's meetings with world leaders and is the Republican Party's leading fund-raiser.

Mr Cheney told the President of the latest developments on Tuesday. "The President's reaction was he wanted to know the specifics and the details and strongly recommended that I go forward [with the procedure]."

Mr Cheney added that he "would be the first to step down" if further information suggested he was not able to continue in his current role.

The President's official spokesman later said that Mr Cheney retained Mr Bush's full support and that the President took the view that Mr Cheney was able to take responsibility for his own health care.

Dr Jonathan Reiner, the Vice-President's cardiologist, said a general anaesthetic would not be needed to fit the pacemaker – or implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). "The ICD can terminate the abnormal rhythm with either a pacemaker function or the delivery of a low-energy electrical shock," he added.