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.
One reason some lawmakers said Bush should shift gears quickly is the changed power structure in the House. For the first five years of the administration, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) used a top-down management style to push the Bush agenda through. With Bush at the top of the ticket and very popular with the GOP base, most lawmakers fell in line.
The election of Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to replace DeLay as party leader has created a more unpredictable and freewheeling Republican caucus. Boehner won by promising to return power to chairmen and rank-and-file legislators who tend to be less compromising -- and less concerned about accommodating the White House.
The blowup over the Dubai deal illustrated the new environment. Bush infuriated members by threatening to veto any congressional effort to prevent an Arab company from taking control of terminals at six U.S. seaports. Instead of falling in line, they felled the deal by joining with Democrats for a 62 to 2 committee vote against Bush. It was the breaking point for many members. Afterward, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, "This is probably the worst administration ever in getting Congress's opinion on anything."
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is a prime example of such perceived slights. He was handpicked by the White House to challenge then-Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004. Thune entered the race under heavy White House pressure and won in part by promising to protect South Dakota's Ellsworth Air Force Base from being closed.
But when the Pentagon targeted Ellsworth for closing, Thune's complaints to White House senior officials were coldly dismissed, according to people familiar with the conversations. "Why are you whining?" was how one person familiar with the session paraphrased the White House response.
Thune declined to comment on the base closing but said, "I think Republicans want to be helpful, but the administration needs to help us to help them."
The tipping point for many lawmakers was last year's debate over the Bush plan to restructure Social Security by offering personal savings accounts. For years, House Republicans had sent word to Karl Rove, Bush's top strategist, and others that any efforts to dismantle the Social Security system could prove disastrous to them. Regardless of the merits, the legislators would say, older Americans vote in high percentages in congressional races and would likely punish the party if it tinkered with the popular program.
House Republicans in particular were already panicking about the Medicare prescription drug benefit they had passed more than a year earlier. The program was seen as too costly for conservatives and too confusing for seniors. Yet a majority of Republicans voted for it under intense lobbying from Bush and GOP congressional leaders, and several regretted it.
"Bottom line, there is a lot of buyer's remorse," said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). If the vote were held today on the Medicare prescription drug benefit, he said, as many 120 Republicans would vote against it. "It was probably our greatest failure in my adult lifetime," he said.
So when Bush sprang the Social Security plan on them, many Republicans balked. Eventually, congressional Republicans revolted and killed what Bush had trumpeted as the top domestic priority of his second term. Another common complaint about the White House is that it asked lawmakers to take politically risky votes and did not bother to provide cover when Democrats started attacking.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a Bush ally who dismissed concerns about an inattentive White House, said he regrets voting for the No Child Left Behind bill in the first term.