While Democrats look on in delight, the budget crisis has destroyed Republican solidarity and sent the GOP faithful clutching at each other's throats in a fiasco blamed even by administration officials on George Bush's failure of leadership.
Last week was undeniably the worst in Bush's presidency, but it was sheer hell for Republicans everywhere. Around the country, they saw poll ratings plummet a month before the mid-term election. In Congress, allies cursed each other. In the White House, backdoor efforts were launched to change the president's course.
The prospect of Bush signing a "compromise" budget opposed by a majority of Republicans is close to reality, leaving GOP candidates high and dry. Their hope for an 11th hour escape is that all budget proposals will fail in Congress this week, enabling the president to go to the nation with a partisan message.
Barring that, candidates protect themselves by opposing Bush's budget. That's how Rep. Jim McCrery survived the Oct. 6 election in Louisiana. That's how Reps. Tom Tauke and Larry Craig, running for the Senate in Iowa and Idaho, pushed up their poll ratings late last week.
The scapegoat designated by Capitol Hill Republicans for this deplorable state of affairs is Budget Director Richard Darman, never a pinup boy in congressional cloakrooms. But much the same criticism comes privately from his colleagues in the administration and White House, who complain that a gag order has kept them from expressing their views.
All blame Darman for crafting a budget summit mechanism that was in good faith intended to cure the deficit problem but instead has rent the fabric of the Republican Party. "This is the natural result," one mid-level official confided to us, "when all policy is put in the hands of two people."
He referred to Darman and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, described by associates as holding out to the last during the summer against breaking Bush's no-new-taxes pledge. But once on board, Sununu drew on his natural combativeness to defend a budget deal with the Democrats.
After the Andrews Air Force Base agreement was defeated by the House, GOP differences -- between Congress and White House as well as inside Congress -- burst open. Sununu was outraged that the "best available" deal had been killed by Republicans, warning that the Andrews agreement would be tilted to the left in Congress (it was immediately dubbed "Andrews II") but still be better than anything else in hand.
What was better in the opinion of House Republican leaders was a new package pushed by Rep. Mickey Edwards, helped by Reps. Newt Gingrich and Vin Weber. Freezing domestic spending, it would set a new top income tax rate of 31 percent that breaks the "bubble" (a 28 percent top marginal tax rate, while lower brackets are at 33 percent) without a net revenue gain. In return, the capital gains tax would fall below 20 percent (from the present 28 percent).
That solution was boosted by Vice President Dan Quayle and at one point last week seemed to have the president's consent. But Darman and Sununu declared it not "available" -- meaning the Democrats would not accept it. Thus, the administration's policy was subject to veto by Tom Foley, George Mitchell and Dick Gephardt.
Besides, the House Republican alternative was rejected at the White House because it projected deficit reduction of "only" $400 billion over five years instead of the $500 billion by Andrews I and Andrews II. No matter that $500 billion surely never will be achieved amid future economic turbulence.
But that does not plumb the depths of inter-Republican quarrels. Conservative senators are split over whether even a revenue-neutral rise in the income tax rate is too much to pay for a capital gains cut. Hard-line anti-taxers such as Reps. Tom DeLay and Richard Armey of Texas split with their usual allies, Gingrich and Weber, because they resist one penny of "sin" taxes in return for capital gains cuts.
At week's end, House Republican leaders were ready to lynch their erstwhile ally, Sen. Phil Gramm, because he lobbied former colleagues against Edwards' House GOP package. For Gramm to argue against minor tax increases after signing on to Andrews I antagonized conservatives who vowed to impede Gramm's presidential ambitions.
It is the president's role as party leader to override disputes with a clear message of policy. Instead, Sununu has been on the phone urging House Republicans to vote against their own package and vote instead for Andrews II. The prayer of the House GOP leaders is that it will fail and Bush will be forced to rescue his party on the hustings the next three weeks.