George W. Bush's brusque dismissal of creative accounting by House Republican leaders brought home to them this reality: By anointing the governor of Texas as the party's presidential nominee, they engaged in political self-immolation.

Bush did it in 15 words. "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor," he said, when asked about the House GOP's effort to stay within spending limits by delaying government payments to the working poor. Actually, that ill-conceived plan was dead--rejected by Senate Republicans--when Bush spoke. But political repercussions are far-reaching.

It recalled Bill Clinton's ingenious Sister Souljah ploy in 1992, when he separated himself from Jesse Jackson and the Democratic Party's left wing. Bush made it clear he is not the creature of his fellow Texan and master House GOP tactician, Majority Whip Tom DeLay, and is not tied to Capitol Hill. Democrats observed that the inexperienced presumptive nominee in Austin is blessed with a political touch not possessed by recent Republican presidential candidates. Most significant, the claim of House Republicans to lead the party nationally is dead.

An astounding 148 Republican House members endorsed Bush quickly because they see the governor as a winner, but also for another reason. They have smarted under flogging by Steve Forbes and other Republican presidential aspirants, and saw the younger Bush as a scion of the GOP old boys' club who would not cause trouble.

Many congressional Republicans want the next Republican president to be a bill-signer whose primary duty is ratifying decisions made on Capitol Hill, and were confident George W. would fill that slot.

But this assessment was made by the same politicians who, in 1995, considered President Clinton a spent force. In fact, Bush's attitude toward congressional Republicans is nuanced.

On one hand, Bush was not about to join Forbes in thrashing the Republican Congress. While Sen. John McCain and Elizabeth Dole defected to the gun controllers after the Columbine High School killings, Bush backed the gun owner-supported Dingell bill.

On the other hand, Bush has signaled he does not want to be the tail tied to the congressional kite. A proposal was made several months ago to send a Capitol Hill emissary to Austin to win Bush's assent on a question of welfare payments to the states. His cool response: Deal with Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who handles such matters for GOP governors. The message, seemingly clear enough, went over the heads of the lawmakers.

So they were stunned by Bush's dismissal of the plan to stretch out earned-income tax credit (EITC) payments to the poor. DeLay was outraged, particularly after the sharp-tongued Democratic Rep. David Obey urged Republicans to choose the Texan they preferred. DeLay and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert suggested that Bush didn't understand how the system worked.

But Bush understood all too well. He echoed what Sen. Phil Gramm, a budget hawk and a budget expert, told the Senate GOP conference two days earlier: "This proposal is simply an accounting gimmick." While EITC needs reform to eliminate fraud, Gramm said, shifting some cost into the next fiscal year accomplishes nothing. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, often Gramm's budget adversary, totally agreed. In the House, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer argued privately against the EITC stretchout.

Hastert was miffed that Bush's comments came after his chief of staff, Scott Palmer, briefed the governor's staff on the budget. But Bush aides say they do not recall the EITC coming up. Certainly they did not sign off on it. Bush neither talked to Gramm nor knew of his position, and in fact, the issue was not discussed by the governor's inner circle. "It was spur of the moment," Bush strategist Karl Rove told me--very unlike Clinton's attack on Sister Souljah.

But it had the same effect, as admitted by strategic thinkers in the House. Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, both a member of the leadership and California co-chairman for Bush, told me his candidate "should not tie himself to the Congress." Dreier knows full well that hope for retaining the Republican House majority in four straight elections rests on the shoulders of George W. Bush.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.