Protests Mark Bush's First Visit to Las Vegas as President

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President Bush visited Las Vegas on Tuesday, hoping to raise funds and support among Nevada residents, who turned out in force to show their anger at his decisions to approve Yucca Mountain and reform Medicare.

Bush addressed Medicare and medical liability at a recently opened Las Vegas hospital and attended a $2,000 a plate fund-raiser luncheon at the Venetian hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

Protesters picketed both locations as Bush made his first visit to Nevada as president.

Security was tight outside The Venetian as about 1,200 people peacefully walked a line separated from tourists by metal barricades. Police reported no arrests.

Many demonstrators carried signs reading "No Nuke Dump in Nevada." Others brought handmade signs referring to broken promises and issues including the Iraq war, union policies, Medicare, abortion policy, and the Patriot Act.

Opponents of Yucca Mountain say Bush broke a campaign pledge to let "sound science" decide if the nation's nuclear repository should open 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Congress in July 2002 approved the plan to store 77,000 tons of radioactive waste in the state. The Energy Department is preparing to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to open the repository in 2010.

"As a Nevadan, of course, I'm upset about Yucca Mountain," said protester Diane Hart, 42, a retired Las Vegas businesswoman. "But he's not going to change his mind. What we have to do is change presidents."

Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of the Las Vegas-based advocacy group Citizen Alert and an organizer of the demonstration, distributed copies of a May 3, 2000, letter from Bush, then the governor of Texas. Bush's letter tells Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn that as president, Bush "would not sign legislation that would send nuclear waste to any proposed site unless it's been deemed scientifically safe."

Bush and Congress picked the Yucca Mountain site with the Energy Department still addressing 293 scientific questions.

"I think it was a done deal before he ever took office," said Marsha Forkos, Sierra Club southern Nevada group chairwoman and another protest organizer. "We want to make him aware that Nevada is not going to just roll over and play dead."

Not everyone at the Venetian was there to protest.

"I'd feel real good with a sign saying, 'Stand behind our troops,'" said tourist Linda Osborne, 57, of Kingsport, Tenn. She and her husband, Don, were disappointed they didn't see Bush's motorcade, which used a rear hotel entrance and did not pass the protesters.

Earlier, Bush spoke for 30 minutes to about 200 invited guests at Spring Valley Hospital.

The president called Tuesday's vote by the Senate to approve sweeping changes to Medicare a "major victory" that will strengthen and modernize the system. The legislation that includes a new prescription drug benefit for 40 million older and disabled Americans goes to Bush for his signature.

"We inherited a good Medicare system. It has worked, but it was becoming old and needed help," Bush said.

Bush also called for a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, which drew loud applause. Las Vegas' regional trauma hospital experienced a medical malpractice crisis when surgeons balked at paying rising malpractice insurance premiums in the summer of 2002.

Arthur Fusco, chief of surgery at Spring Valley hospital, said getting a handle on doctor insurance premiums remains vital to trauma centers.

Jackie Johnson, a surgical nurse at another Las Vegas hospital and a member of the Service Employees International Union, joined about 45 union members who waved signs and chanted as the president's motorcade arrived at the hospital.

Johnson said the Medicare changes proposed by the Bush administration, coupled with changes to worker overtime policies, would mean "more work, less help, sicker patients."

"We need to study the broken system before making changes so fast," she said.

Denise Kelley, vice president of the Nevada Alliance for Retired Americans, said her group planned afternoon rallies in Las Vegas and Reno to blame Bush for breaking promises to Americans on Medicare and prescription drug coverage.

"What happens when you have a prescription that's $279 for a 90-day supply, and you're on a pension?" asked Kelley, 77, a retired government worker who is on Medicare.

"Seniors are not going to benefit overall," said Scott Watts, president of the alliance that represents 7,000 retirees in the state. "Pharmaceuticals and insurance companies will have a windfall."

Bush flew into McCarran International Airport aboard Air Force One, where he was greeted by many of the state's Republican leaders. Bush also shook hands with Maria Konold-Soto, a local volunteer who is active with the Medical Reserve Corps in Las Vegas. The president has been recognizing volunteers around the country.

The president took off for Phoenix and another campaign stop on his way to Crawford, Texas, to spend Thanksgiving with his family.

Bush didn't visit Las Vegas when he was campaigning in 2000, but did visit Lake Tahoe to raise $300,000 for his campaign and $240,000 for the Republican Party. He carried the state and its four electoral votes in 2000, 49.5 percent to 45.9 percent.

Because of redistricting, the state now has five electoral votes.