President Bush's campaign to enact his domestic agenda and win reelection next year is creating political problems for congressional Republicans.
Bush, accused by Democrats of shortchanging homeland security, is blaming the GOP-controlled Congress for underfunding programs to guard against terrorism. Mr. Bush told the National Governors Association this week that Congress "did not respond to the $3.5 billion we asked for -- they not only reduced the budget that we asked for, they earmarked a lot of the money" for other unrelated programs. "Tactically, that was a stupid thing for the [White House] to do," a senior House GOP aide said yesterday.
Democrats said the president's remarks likely will be fodder for political ads in 2004 accusing House and Senate Republicans of failing to protect the homeland. The president "is saying, in effect, Republicans shortchanged homeland security," said Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). After reading the president's remarks, Hoyer said he told his staff, "let's develop this" for a campaign.
The president also is deploying Cabinet officials to drum up support for his $695 billion tax cut plan on the home turf of GOP lawmakers who have expressed reservations about the proposal, a senior White House official said. Some Republicans privately worry the White House will undercut congressional allies if it puts too much pressure on them. Sens. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), possible targets of the White House campaign, face reelection in 2004.
A top White House official said Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and other officials will travel to several states with Republican Senate and House members to promote the tax cut plan.
"There are probably places they can go and have more of an impact on persuading point of views," said Voinovich spokesman Scott Milburn. Voinovich has said he supports Bush's tax plan, in theory, but believes its centerpiece -- eliminating the tax on dividends -- should be considered later. Specter has been generally supportive of the plan, but has not shied from opposing Bush in the past.
Milburn said the White House has assured him any visits by Evans or Snow would be friendly and educational.
Some conservative Republicans worry Bush will demand more than $100 billion this year for a war in Iraq, driving deficits beyond $400 billion and providing Democrats a good campaign issue next year. But most Republicans believe the threat Iraq poses justifies big deficit spending.
Bush also is unintentionally pressuring congressional Republicans to spend more time raising money this winter. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who an aide said raised more than $1 million in January, and other top Republicans are trying to collect as much money as possible before Bush vacuums up huge sums from GOP donors. Bush is expected to raise upward of $250 million for his reelection and spend much less time than he did last year raising money and campaigning for fellow GOP candidates.
White House political adviser Karl Rove has privately assured top congressional officials the president will not purposely chide GOP lawmakers for his political gain. And most congressional Republicans are vocally backing Bush on going to war in Iraq, enacting his tax cut plan and approving his judicial nominees.
Still, the euphoria of controlling the White House, Senate and House for only the second time since 1954 is slowing giving way to reality. It was not until this week that congressional Republicans saw the first evidence Bush would undercut them if it served his best political interest. In his speech to the governors, Bush said he was "disappointed" that Congress did not provide the $3.5 billion he requested a year ago for counterterrorism programs.
A top GOP House official said the Bush administration was intimately involved in negotiating the details of the $397 billion omnibus spending bill the president signed into law earlier this month. White House officials and many budget experts said the measure provides $1.3 billion specifically to local governments to combat terrorism -- considerably less than the $3.5 billion that Bush said he wanted.
"If the president wanted the money, he should have asked for it. He never did," said a senior House GOP leadership aide. "Bush will say what he needs to say, and we understand that."
Democrats took advantage of the dust-up yesterday to slam Republicans for spending too little on homeland defense.
"Incredibly, the president is now blaming others for the budget he himself insisted on," said Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).
Democrats said they were introducing a bill to provide $5 billion more for emergency response preparedness -- the same package that Republicans, at White House insistence, refused to add to the omnibus spending bill enacted earlier this year. "No more blaming others, no more delay," Daschle said.
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.