By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
The first heading on the issues page of Rep. Mark Foley's Web site brags that he is "one of President Bush's strongest supporters in Congress." The Florida Republican voted for the president's legislation 90 percent of the time, according to the Web site, "the 3rd highest ranking among the Florida delegation."
Now the Florida delegation's third-strongest Bush supporter is on the front lines of the Republican revolt against the president on the deal to turn over key operations at six U.S. ports to a United Arab Emirates company. Republicans who once marched in lock step behind their president on national security are increasingly willing to challenge him in an area considered his political strength.
The signs of GOP discontent have been building in the past few months. Dissident Republicans in Congress forced Bush to sign a measure banning torture of detainees despite his initial veto threat, blocked renewal of the USA Patriot Act until their civil liberties concerns were addressed and pressured the White House into accepting legislation on its secret eavesdropping program. By the time the port deal came to light, the uprising was no longer limited to dissidents.
"We simply want to participate and aren't going to be PR flacks when they need us," Foley said. "We all have roles. We have oversight. When you can't answer your constituents when they have legitimate questions . . . we can't simply do it on trust."
The breakdown of the Republican consensus on national security both reflects and exacerbates Bush's political weakness heading toward the midterm elections, according to party strategists. Even as Republicans abandoned him last year on domestic issues such as Social Security, Hurricane Katrina relief and Harriet Miers's Supreme Court nomination, they had largely stuck by him on terrorism and other security issues.
Karl Rove, the president's political guru and deputy chief of staff, has already signaled that he intends to use national security as the defining issue for the fall congressional campaigns, just as he did to great effect in 2002 and 2004. But with Bush's numbers still falling, the Republicans who will be on the ballot have decided to define the security issue in their own way rather than defer to the president's interpretation.
The release of a new CBS News poll showing Bush's approval rating dropping to 34 percent, a low for him in that survey, sent tremors through Republican circles in Washington. Scott Reed, who managed Robert J. Dole's presidential campaign in 1996, called the results "pretty shattering." Most distressing to GOP strategists was that Bush's support among Republicans fell from 83 percent to 72 percent.
"The repetition of the news coming out of Iraq is wearing folks down," Reed said. "It started with women and it's spreading. It's just bad news after bad news after bad news, without any light at the end of the tunnel."
Bush shrugged off the poll numbers in an interview with ABC News yesterday. "If I worried about polls, I would be -- I wouldn't be doing my job," he said before leaving Washington for a trip to India and Pakistan. "And, look, I fully understand that when you do hard things, it creates consternation at times. And, you know, I've been up in the polls and I've been down in the polls. You know, it's just part of life in the modern era."
Yet at the White House, aides were decidedly downbeat, making dark jokes about the latest political trajectory and the Murphy's Law quality of life in the West Wing these days -- what can go wrong will go wrong. At least, some consoled themselves, Bush beat out Vice President Cheney, who was viewed favorably by just 18 percent in the CBS survey.
Others held on to the hope that this, too, shall pass.
"We've got a period of time when the news that's dominating the headlines is not good and some Republicans are going to feel free to distance themselves from the president," said a senior White House official who was not authorized to speak on the record. "But at the end of the day, I don't think the breach is deep or lasting because this is the president's strong suit. I think it's about this moment in time. I don't think it's fundamental."
If so, the moment may still last a while longer. Much of the dialogue in Washington right now centers on security disputes pitting Republicans against Republicans.
The Senate voted yesterday to clear the way for final passage today of a compromise version of the Patriot Act after a handful of Republicans in recent months insisted on changes to the law. But Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he was still dissatisfied with the additional checks on law enforcement and introduced a new bill to set further restrictions on the collection of certain information in terrorism investigations without court orders.
Specter's committee also held another hearing yesterday into the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance authorized by Bush. Specter and other Republicans are drafting legislation to establish congressional or court oversight of the eavesdropping.
And it was clear yesterday that a fresh 45-day review of the ports deal might not satisfy GOP critics. Two Senate committees grilled administration officials and the chief operating officer of the Dubai company at the center of the dispute. A bipartisan group of senators, including Republicans Norm Coleman (Minn.), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), is scheduled to meet today to discuss legislation giving Congress final say over the deal.
Beyond the politics, several of the disputes are about institutional prerogatives, the sort of natural executive-legislative tension that was subsumed in Bush's first term after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Republican lawmakers deferred to the president.
James B. Steinberg, who was President Bill Clinton's deputy national security adviser, said Bush "just overstepped" and alienated allies by not involving Congress in the matter.
"Even if you're a Republican member of Congress, you don't buy the exaggerated view of the unified executive theory, in which the only part of the Constitution that matters is Article II," on presidential power, said Steinberg, now dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. "If you want them to be in on the landing, you have to have people there for the takeoff."
Rep. Heather A. Wilson (N.M.), who has emerged as one of the most active players on the NSA issue, noted that she has taken on the administration on a number of national security issues over the past few years but is now joined by more fellow Republicans. She said that owes more to administration mishandling than to a changing mood on Capitol Hill.
"We all agree that there has to be a single leader from the White House leading the armed forces," Wilson said. But "Congress has the responsibility to exercise oversight and ask questions," she said, "and I think you're seeing more members of Congress willing to do that."