A group of moderate House Republicans has launched an effort to replace Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (Mich.) as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, a move that all but ensures open warfare within the House GOP will continue into the next Congress.
White House officials deny that President Bush, his Chief of Staff John H. Sununu or any other senior White House official is behind the candidacy of a longtime Bush supporter, Rep. Don Sundquist (R-Tenn.), to replace Vander Jagt.
Bush and Vander Jagt clashed last week over the actions of Edward J. Rollins, co-chairman and chief political officer of the campaign committee, who recently sent a memo to House GOP candidates urging them to run against the president if supporting White House policies endangered their election chances.
After Rollins's memo became public last week, Bush was described by aides as enraged. He told Vander Jagt at a White House meeting that Rollins, who works for House Republicans and not the White House, should be fired.
Sundquist said it would "be unfair to the president and to Ed Rollins to suggest this has anything to do with that. I am running because a number of my colleagues are unhappy that the campaign committee cannot get Republicans elected, and that problem predates Ed Rollins." Sundquist, joined by several other House Republicans who supported the budget package, began campaigning in earnest over the weekend to defeat Vander Jagt, according to one House Republican.
Among those said to be part of the effort are two of Sundquist's colleagues from Connecticut, Reps. Nancy L. Johnson and Christopher Shays, and Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana, who is serving as Sundquist's campaign chairman. Most of the conservative House Republicans in the original revolt against the White House on the budget, led by Rep. Newt Gingrich (Ga.), are said to be supporting Vander Jagt, considered a moderate.
The new battle came as Bush called 400 members of his political team to a downtown hotel for a pep rally as the final week of the midterm campaign begins. Sponsored by the Republican National Committee, the rally was the Washington debut of a new Bush theme, patterned after those of two previous Democratic presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and Harry S. Truman's Fair Deal.
With sharp partisan attacks on Democrats as big taxers and big spenders and part of the Washington establishment that should be removed by the voters, Bush pledged Republicans would bring America "a better deal."
"We will reform this city and the capital, revive this institution, renew this nation and together we can keep this country strong and compassionate," Bush said. "And we'll do it by bringing this country what we deserve -- a better deal."
On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders fired back. "Today our country needs a leader who acts like a president, instead of a president who acts like a party chairman," said House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
Gephardt and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) rejected Bush's argument that the president was forced to accept higher taxes.
"President Bush was unwilling to admit publicly the policies he was pursuing privately," Mitchell said. "The president has spent five months trying to reduce the tax burden on those whose incomes are over $200,000. Now, in a desperate effort, he is trying in five days to create the opposite impression."
Later, Bush met with a group of irate evangelical religious leaders who sent reporters letters in advance accusing the president of being in the dark while his staff fired or moved key evangelicals in the administration.
The group also complained about Bush's meeting with a group of publishers that included the publisher of Playboy magazine, allowing gays at a White House ceremony and abandoning his no-new-taxes pledge.
Staff writers E.J. Dionne and John E. Yang contributed to this report.