Cheney to pace himself while Bush soldiers on

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As continuing health problems raised questions about his political future, Vice President Dick Cheney was successfully fitted with a pacemaker yesterday. It was the third time in seven months that cardiac problems had landed him in hospital.

The 60-year-old vice president spent about three hours undergoing tests and having the pacemaker inserted at George Washington University Hospital, not far from the White House. He is expected back at work tomorrow.

"I'm told the operation went well," President Bush told reporters.

As Cheney arrived at hospital he was asked about his ability to perform his duties. Mr Cheney said he envisaged no problems but added: "I'll follow my doctors' advice in that regard."

Mr Cheney, who has had four heart attacks and underwent quadruple bypass surgery 13 years ago, offered a similar caveat on Friday as he announced the latest procedure to correct sporadic irregularities in his heartbeat.

If his doctors ever concluded he was no longer fit to work, he said, "I'd be the first to step forward and say so". This is the first time Mr Cheney has entertained this scenario. Previous trips to hospital, for the insertion of a stent in November and an angioplasty in March, he insisted everything was fine.

But Mr Cheney's medical problems were unwelcome news for President Bush at a time when he is facing setbacks on just about every front. His heavily pro-business agenda for energy and the environment has been shot down by the House of Representatives, which is controlled by his own Republican Party. He has lost control of the Senate to the Democrats and is likely to be presented soon with bills on health care and campaign finance reform with which he disagrees.

Big question marks remain over policy such as the nuclear missile shield, plans to drill for oil in Alaska and replacing federal welfare with private "faith-based initiatives".

All of which make his vice president's health problems less than welcome.

Mr Cheney has a commanding position in the White House, acting more like a prime minister than a presidential understudy. He has provided the Bush administration with some much needed gravitas and executive experience.