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Budget Battle Toughest Test For Bush Yet

Many say president faces more trouble if his failure to settle domestic issues becomes pattern

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THE standoff between Congress and President Bush over a budget deal has brought on the most difficult political crisis of his presidency yet. On the cover of Newsweek, his budget dealing is dubbed ``Bush League.'' His approval rating has dropped an average of 16 or 17 percentage points in polls since August.

Yet his popularity is only slightly lower than it was in July, before it soared over his handling of the Persian Gulf crisis. Even now, polls rate his approval between 55 and 60 percent, well above the historic average for presidents at this stage of their first terms.

White House aides had several days last week of head-shaking, eye-rolling, and general edginess over when the political free fall would end, says one official. But a sense prevails now, he says, ``that there's less to this than meets the eye in terms of political disaster.''

Most expert observers are inclined to agree - unless alleged Bush bumbling on the domestic front becomes a theme in his media coverage for weeks to come.

``If this catches on, if it becomes a pattern, then he's in trouble,'' says George Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A&M University.

``He looks indecisive at the moment,'' says Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University. In a political system that values strength foremost in presidents, indecision ranks only above incompetence among the least presidential qualities. ``He's been Carterized,'' Dr. Wayne says.

The budget battle this fall has been the toughest test yet of Mr. Bush's domestic leadership, and by many accounts, he has failed so far. Congress has seized the initiative. The president plays the heavy, threatening to shut the federal government down again this weekend if Congress has not produced a budget he would sign.

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