For Republicans, New White House Lineup Brings Sense of Relief

By Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 30, 2006

The recent White House staff shake-up has bought President Bush a measure of peace with his disgruntled Republican allies on Capitol Hill, who see the new lineup as belated evidence that the president is finally determined to gain political traction before the November elections. But they fear those ambitions may be frustrated by public unease over Iraq and party divisions over spending and immigration.

Republican lawmakers regard the arrivals of new White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, budget director-designate Rob Portman and incoming press secretary Tony Snow as more than superficial job shuffling. They interpret the changes as a sign of Bush's desire to improve tattered relations with Congress and the media -- key steps that could aid in revitalizing his presidency.

"If this were the NFL draft, these would be some awfully strong picks," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), adding, "I think they're really trying to do something that is much more than cosmetic. They're trying to make meaningful changes that will give a new look as well as a new air to the administration."

Republican lawmakers and strategists also applaud the reduced portfolio for senior adviser Karl Rove, who will hand off his policy responsibilities to new White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joel Kaplan to focus on political strategy. GOP officials said Rove was stretched too thin in his previous assignment, leading to cumbersome decision making and distractions.

With their majorities in the House and possibly the Senate at risk in November, congressional Republicans, in particular, prefer that the party's leading political strategist concentrate on what he knows best, and not be preoccupied with other duties.

That sense of reassurance was offset, however, when Rove testified again last week before a grand jury investigating how the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame was leaked to the media. Although little is known about the status of special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's probe, Republicans saw Rove's fifth appearance before the grand jury as an ominous sign.

"To see Rove back does worry people," said one House Republican, who asked not to be identified to talk about the sensitive case.

The White House staff shake-up coincided with a flurry of activity by the president last week, including a series of bipartisan meetings with legislators at the White House to discuss Iraq, immigration and other issues; efforts to show he is tackling the issue of high gas prices even if little can be done in the short term; a trip to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast areas hit by Hurricane Katrina; and a Friday news conference in the White House Rose Garden, which he used to trumpet new statistics showing strong economic growth in the first quarter.

Bush's relationship with Republicans in Congress had deteriorated significantly, but GOP lawmakers said the staff changes may help to produce a more cooperative attitude at the White House about how to treat the legislative branch.

"It appears to me there's a rejuvenation," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who had been critical of the White House's style of communicating with members of Congress.

Democratic critics have dismissed the changes as window dressing because, with the exception of Snow's arrival, all are merely new assignments for trusted advisers already on the president's team.

These critics argue that the personnel moves have not signaled a broad policy reassessment, which might be needed to reinvigorate Bush's presidency, particularly on Iraq, which continues to drag down Bush's approval ratings. The poll numbers in turn have fueled the gloomy mood among Republican lawmakers about their chances in November.

Congressional Republicans say they recognize there may be little Bush can do in the short term to change attitudes about Iraq, noting that events there will affect public opinion in ways that administration rhetoric and new PR tactics cannot.

But they see the new White House team as offering the potential for an infusion of energy and ideas, which Republicans say will be necessary to revive a stalled agenda on Capitol Hill and present voters with legislative victories in November. After Bush's State of the Union address last winter, Snow wrote a column describing the domestic agenda as "listless."

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said Bolten and Portman, a former House member from Ohio who is well liked among his former colleagues, have demonstrated greater sensitivity to Congress than some others in the White House. Cole said some Bush aides have under-appreciated how loyal congressional Republicans have been to the administration's priorities.

"In an operational sense, they didn't recognize that we were equal partners at the table, not the junior varsity," he said. "That seems to be taken care of."

Snowe got a view of the new regime when she participated Wednesday in a wide-ranging White House meeting between Bush and nine GOP senators. Snowe, a political moderate with bipartisan inclinations, urged the president to move against rising gas prices, delay the sign-up deadline for the Medicare drug benefit and press Iraqis to take firmer control of their country. "It's a different time," she said. "Give-and-take is central and crucial."

Fiscal conservatives, who have been the most outspoken in their complaints about the administration's domestic priorities, said they already see signs of genuine change at the White House, starting with Bush's threat to veto an emergency supplemental spending bill. "If you can attribute the veto threat to the change [in staffing], then it's welcomed and long overdue," Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House members, said he believes the combination of Bolten, Snow and Portman will ease tensions between Bush and his conservative base. "To the extent the president has tapped a fiscal hawk out of OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] to be his chief of staff, an outspoken conservative to be his press secretary and a highly respected former member of Congress to take over the budget is all very encouraging to those of us who want to see a midcourse correction," he said.

But how far Bush and his new team are prepared to go in reshaping the domestic agenda is another question. Given the limited time available for Congress to act this year, White House officials may have little time for anything other than immigration, budgetary matters and perhaps energy policy.

"I think we've reached critical mass on energy independence and immigration issues, but the key is leadership," said Rep. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.). "The president is more effective when he has a good staff, and part of that is when the staff is fresh."

But Kirk said he and others hope there is a substantive component added by Bolten and the new White House lineup, because "in politics, if you're on the defensive, you lose."

Congressional Republicans believe that preserving their majorities lies as much in their hands as in Bush's, but they are extremely nervous about what presidential approval ratings below 40 percent could mean for them in November.

"Republicans were looking for a sign that the president was getting the message to provide new direction and new leadership for Republicans running for office this fall," Thune said. The changes, he added, mean "the administration is getting serious about being helpful. People find great comfort in that."

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