At a private, Republican political dinner at the Hay-Adams Hotel last summer, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu got into an argument with Edward J. Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, over Sununu's handling of House Republicans.
Sununu blew up with an expletive aimed at the GOP lawmakers, according to sources. "They're never satisfied," he said bitterly.
But Rollins persisted. "Sooner or later, they're going to turn around and kill you, John," he warned. "They're not like the New Hampshire legislature."
Last week, Sununu got his comeuppance as House Republicans joined with a majority of House Democrats to crush the bipartisan deficit-reduction plan that the former New Hampshire governor helped negotiate.
In the wake of the debacle, Sununu and the administration's other chief budget negotiator, Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman, have become targets of sharp criticism from Capitol Hill.
They are blamed for prolonging and complicating the negotiations that last week produced a package few members would buy. The White House view, however, is that the tough tactics were needed to force Democrats to make real spending cuts.
Sununu and Darman are also being criticized for "ham-handed" and arrogant treatment of the congressional negotiators, failure to appreciate the political realities of the package they were negotiating and hardball treatment of fellow Republicans last week as they tried to sell the package of tax increases and spending cuts just a month before midterm elections.
Neither Sununu nor Darman returned phone calls yesterday. On Sunday, Sununu defended himself. "Everyone understood you have to break a little china" to get a significant package, he said on CNN's "Newsmaker Sunday." He predicted that "all these big waves will be seen really as ripples in the long run."
But by last weekend, the two men were distrusted enough that congressional Democrats asked to exclude them from further negotiations, while Rep. Jim Lightfoot (R-Iowa) sent a letter to Bush asking him to come to Congress to patch up relations but to leave the "pit bulldogs at the White House." Ironically, as they came under this criticism Sununu and Darman were urging Bush yesterday not to veto another short-term measure to fund the government, saying they should continue to work with congressional leaders.
Much of the resentment of Sununu and Darman among Democrats grew out of their conduct during the long days of closed-door negotiating.
One incident occurred last month at Andrews Air Force Base as the two sides wrestled with cuts in entitlement programs, one of the most politically delicate portions of the negotiations that the administration considered crucial to the long-term success of the budget talks.
The administration wanted $120 billion in entitlements cuts over five years. The Democrats, reluctant to tamper with programs aimed at their core constituents, had offered to cut just $59 billion. But after much debate, the Democrats came forward with a package of $100 billion in cuts, including Medicare and Social Security.
Most participants recognized it as a significant move by the Democrats, but Sununu mocked the proposal. "Where's the rest of it?" he asked. Sensing tensions rising among the Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) immediately asked for a recess.
When the group reconvened, the White House team continued its sniping, with Darman lecturing the Democrats on how to negotiate. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the former Senate majority leader and now chairman of the Appropriations Committee, finally erupted, saying he had never been treated so rudely in his life, sources said.
The legacy of the 1988 battle for the Republican presidential nomination, in which Sununu helped torpedo Dole's then front-running campaign in New Hampshire with a television ad that attacked the Republican leader as a supporter of tax hikes, also hung over the budget talks.
Tensions between the Dole and the White House were obvious to everyone involved in the talks, sources said. When Sununu and Darman arrived at Andrews last month, they put their nameplates along the row of chairs set aside for the congressional leaders. Moments later, aides to Dole moved the nameplates to the foot of the table. "Staff doesn't sit with the leadership," Dole was overheard to say.
Last week, Sununu created an uproar among House Republicans with his lobbying to sell the doomed budget package and in his attacks on House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) for his opposition to the agreement.
At a closed-door caucus, Sununu said that Bush would come into members' districts and challenge them if they voted against the package. As GOP backbenchers hooted, Rep. Carl D. Pursell (R-Mich.) angrily responded that he did not like to be threatened.
"I don't think that's tough. I think that's real," Sununu said on CNN Sunday in defense of his tactics.
Sununu still has some sympathizers. "Capitol Hill is filled with egos and it's pretty easy to bruise them," said Rep. C. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.). "You need Dr. Joyce Brothers as White House chief of staff."
"He's an extraordinarily bright and intelligent man," said one House Republican. "But his basic problem is that he was effective as a governor dealing with people who were part-time legislators. Frankly, you can bully them around. . . . You don't get anywhere in this town by bullying people around. That lesson has not quite soaked through."
Sununu appears willing to accept the criticism, and there is no sign that Bush has lost any confidence in either of his two negotiators. "As long as we get a package that really reduces the deficit, and I think over the next few weeks that will happen, what I have to absorb in the process is worth the success of the result," Sununu said.