Bush seeks to Move Ahead on Domestic Agenda

Sunday, October 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush pledged Sunday to lead America through ``one of the darkest moments in our history,'' while insisting his focus on terrorism would not derail his domestic agenda.

``Let me be clear about this: We will win the war on terrorism, and we will also continue to fight important battles at home,'' Bush told the American Society of Anesthesiologists in a speech delivered by videotape in New Orleans.

``During the past few days, our nation has experienced one of the darkest moments in our history,'' he said. ``Yet even in the midst of this tragedy, the eternal lights of America's goodness and greatness have shown through.''

Addressing about 700 medical professionals, Bush renewed his call for a ``real'' bill protecting patients' rights and for changes to the Medicare system. Those issues have been overshadowed by the response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The president said he wants legislation that ``achieves both the goals of improving the quality of health care without unnecessarily raising health care costs.''

Patients' rights legislation passed separately in the House and Senate last summer. The House and Senate bills differ over where lawsuits against health plans could be filed _ state court or federal court _ and on the maximum size of jury awards.

Bush also said he remained committed to making Medicare ``less bureaucratic and more efficient.''

Cabinet members took to the airwaves Sunday to try to calm a public shaken by the threat of new terrorist attacks and by fears of exposure to anthrax.

They said they consider the sending of anthrax through the mail an act of terrorism, but that there is no direct evidence now to link the U.S. cases to Osama bin Laden.

The officials told Americans their government is prepared to deal with instances of bioterrorism. They urged the public to be vigilant but not panic in the face of threats by bin Laden's al-Qaida network of a second wave of attacks as the United States undertakes a war against terrorism.

With the country on edge over instances of anthrax found in several letters sent to offices around the country, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said, ``It certainly is an act of terrorism to send anthrax through the mail.''

As for the possible source, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, ``We should consider this potential that it is linked'' to bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. ``It is premature at this time to decide whether there is a direct link.''

Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman at the Taliban Embassy in Pakistan, said he thinks the United States ``is doing a great mistake by focusing only on Osama'' during the investigation into the anthrax exposure.

As a result, U.S. officials, he said, ``have freed all other terrorists organizations to do what they can do. ... America has many enemies, open and secret. They should not focus only on Osama. ... Then the real culprit will escape and there will be more incidents like this under the name of Osama.''

Ashcroft rejected that explanation and took aim at the fresh round of threats by bin Laden supporters, who warned of a new ``storm of airplanes'' and advised Muslims in the United States and Britain to avoid flying and to stay away from tall buildings.

An al-Qaida spokesman also said the president; his father, former President Bush; former President Clinton; British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would not escape punishment for ``crimes'' against Muslims.

``We've been getting messages that are more propaganda than anything else,'' said Ashcroft, who followed the Taliban representative on NBC's ``Meet the Press.''

``I don't think it's valuable for us to deal with propaganda. I don't want to further their position or enhance their standing. I think the American people can evaluate the credibility of it and evaluate it for what it is.''

The FBI on Thursday said it had received information there might be additional terrorist attacks inside the United States or abroad in the coming days.

``To indicate there is a risk of terrorist attack is not the same that there is going to be one,'' Ashcroft said. ``It is important for us to learn that there are things we can do. We are a nation in a condition of war. ... You're not going to bring America to a halt. ... It's a preparedness, not a paralysis, not a panic.''

Thompson said on ``Fox News Sunday'' that ``there are a lot of people in America that are afraid, and understandably so, because bioterrorism has never hit America before, and people are afraid ... of the unknown. They don't know about anthrax.''

Thompson said there are more than 2 millions doses to treat 2 million people for 60 days for exposure to anthrax.

The government has thousands of medical professionals on alert and tons of medical supplies, ready to go where needed, to respond to bioterrorism, Thompson said. He also said the administration will ask Congress this week for $1 billion to increase the amount of purchases for all those supplies ``just to make sure that Americans ... any place in this world ... are going to be protected.''

Bush was spending the weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat outside Washington. He was meeting with aides in preparation for his trip this week to China and receiving video conference updates from top military and intelligence advisers.

Secretary of State Colin Powell was flying to Pakistan and India on a high-priority diplomatic mission aimed at keeping tensions between those two nations from further complicating the U.S. anti-terror campaign in neighboring Afghanistan.