Fractured GOP Moves on Divergent Paths

President Bush, whose ratings have Republicans worried, leaves the White House to go cycling in Maryland.
President Bush, whose ratings have Republicans worried, leaves the White House to go cycling in Maryland. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
By Michael A. Fletcher and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 13, 2005

In the face of declining approval ratings, the White House and Republican congressional leaders are scrambling to revise their political agenda, moving out on separate tracks that may only exacerbate the divisions surfacing in the party.

With President Bush stumbling politically, the administration is attempting to reshape its agenda to rally support among social conservatives while winning over fiscal conservatives disaffected by the huge growth in the federal budget over the past five years, according to White House aides and policy consultants.

But the White House effort to solidify Bush's conservative base risks alienating moderates who have supported him in the past. In a Veterans Day speech, for example, he called on the Senate to support a constitutional amendment outlawing flag burning. In the same speech, he lashed out at critics of his Iraq war policy, and White House officials plan to reassert the president's conservative credentials on spending and border security.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have vowed to move on their own agenda -- with or without the White House. The House Republican Conference held a half-day, closed-door retreat last month to begin plotting a legislative strategy for next year, and House GOP leaders will gather at the end of this month to flesh it out.

"We're going to be hand in hand with the president as much as we can. He needs us to help him out, and we need him," said Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), chairman of the conference. "But we're not going to do it at our own expense."

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the current fixation on conservative voters may jeopardize his party's prospects for holding on to some of its seats. "If the leadership just plays to the base, they're going to be a minority leadership in the next Congress," he said.

The diverging tracks pose risks for the White House and congressional Republicans, according to some lawmakers and political experts.

Bush, for example, may attempt to try to shape his legacy by pressing to restructure the tax code, but GOP lawmakers may be unwilling to risk doing anything so bold that would incur voters' wrath with the president's popularity at an all-time low. Bush's latest effort to defend his Iraq policy may stir up renewed controversy over his justification for going to war that congressional Republicans would rather avoid.

Conversely, if GOP lawmakers stray too far from the president's wish list, they could be stymied by the combined opposition of Democrats and the White House.

In a bid to mollify conservative critics angry about runaway federal spending, Bush plans to renew his call for Congress to enact cuts in social spending outlined by White House budget makers, they say. Simultaneously, Bush intends to stress the conservative elements of issues dividing many Republicans, including his plan to revise immigration laws to grant temporary legal status to the 11 million undocumented workers now in the United States.

While the president still advocates a temporary worker program, he plans to couch it more in terms of border security than as a practical and compassionate way of extending legal status to undocumented workers who came to the country in search of economic security.

The temporary worker plan has split congressional Republicans. Some favor it as a way to fill critical jobs and bring millions of people into the mainstream. But others equate the idea with amnesty for illegal immigrants who are overwhelming public services, particularly in communities near the border with Mexico.

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