GOP Irritation At Bush Was Long Brewing

By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2006

President Bush's troubles with congressional Republicans, which erupted during the backlash to the Dubai seaport deal, are rooted in policy frustrations and personal resentments that GOP lawmakers say stretch back to the opening days of the administration.

For years, the Bush White House and its allies on Capitol Hill seemed like one of the most unified teams Washington had ever seen, passing most of Bush's agenda with little dissent. Privately, however, many lawmakers felt underappreciated, ignored and sometimes bullied by what they regarded as a White House intent on running government with little input from them. Often it was to pass items -- an expanded federal role in education under the No Child Left Behind law and an expensive prescription drug benefit under Medicare -- that left conservatives deeply uneasy.

What Bush is facing now, beyond just election-year jitters by legislators eyeing his depressed approval ratings, is a rebellion that has been brewing since the days when he looked invincible, say many lawmakers and strategists. Newly unleashed grievances could signal even bigger problems for Bush's last two years in office, as he would be forced to abandon a governing strategy that until recently counted on solid support from congressional Republicans.

The White House at times has been "non-responsive and arrogant," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). "There are a thousand small cuts," he added, that are ignored when things are going well but "rear their heads when things are not going well."

"Members felt they were willing to take a lot of tough votes and did not get much in return," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), an early critic of the port deal.

Congressional scholar Norman J. Ornstein has written that the recently vented anger, after being suppressed for years out of loyalty or fear, might be seen in psychological terms. He called the condition "battered-Congress syndrome."

The biggest test of dissatisfaction could come this summer if calls for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq intensify. Most Republicans voted to authorize the Iraq war after the White House assured them that Saddam Hussein posed a threat with weapons of mass destruction and that the United States had an effective military strategy. Many now harbor serious doubts about the war's prospects.

Bush still enjoys a high level of personal affection among GOP lawmakers, but there is a deep-seated frustration with his political, policy and congressional relations teams in particular that has poisoned the atmosphere. This is one reason many legislators are among a chorus of Washington voices urging Bush to infuse his White House with new blood.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) recently contacted White House officials and implored them to bring aboard a former lawmaker as a new chief diplomat to Congress. Lott floated several names, including former senators Daniel R. Coats (R-Ind.) and Slade Gorton (R-Wash.). It "would be a good idea" to have someone with real stature working Congress on Bush's behalf, Lott said. Former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) told CBS on Wednesday that he did the same in a phone call to Bush Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., offering the name of former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.).

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who won his seat in 2002 after a late push by Bush, told the Associated Press this week that the president should shake up the staff more broadly, accusing the White House of having a political "tin ear." That was seen by some top White House aides as a wake-up call, because Coleman has been such a loyal Bush backer.

The White House may be listening. In private conversations with lawmakers in recent days, top officials have hinted that Bush is open to bringing aboard new high-level staffers, including perhaps a former lawmaker or two. With the recent departure of domestic policy chief Claude A. Allen, now facing criminal theft charges, Bush has positions to fill and every incentive to use those openings to rebuild relations with Capitol Hill.

A senior White House official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Bush is moving to hold more face-to-face meetings with legislators but has no immediate plans to fire any staff. Even before the seaport flap, Bush was holding more meetings than ever with individual House and Senate members, including Democrats, to discuss Iraq and the domestic agenda, aides said. Bush, Vice President Cheney and other officials are also raising millions of dollars for lawmakers seeking reelection and other congressional candidates.

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