President Bush ascended Capitol Hill yesterday for what Republican lawmakers called a "pep rally" to restore the spirits of a GOP caucus worried about chaos in Iraq and Bush's declining poll numbers.
Behind closed doors, Bush gave a 35-minute version of his stump speech covering Iraq, the economy and energy policy. When he finished, the participants filed past a bank of microphones to announce that they were unified in support of Bush and that there had been no dissent expressed at the meeting. Bush took no questions.
"The president was great," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). "We saw the determination and spirit of a great leader," said Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.). "There were several standing ovations," reported Sen. George Allen (Va.).
The rare trip by Bush to the Capitol -- he makes such appearances only once or twice a year -- gave Republicans a chance to circle the wagons as the violence and prison-abuse scandal in Iraq have pushed Bush's standing to the lowest of his term, and beneath that of Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.
Democrats have become increasingly pointed in their attacks on Bush. Minutes after Bush's morning visit to the Capitol, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) accused him of incompetence and blamed him for the deaths of U.S. soldiers.
"I believe that the president's leadership in the actions taken in Iraq demonstrate an incompetence in terms of knowledge, judgment and experience, in making the decisions that would have been necessary to truly accomplish the mission without the deaths to our troops and the cost to our taxpayers," she said.
Republicans responded to Pelosi's unusually strong language by suggesting she was aiding the enemy in Iraq. "We are in the middle of a war and in the middle of a political campaign," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.). "Mrs. Pelosi's comments were meant to inspire her political base, but who else do they inspire?"
Bush's campaign chairman, Marc Racicot, sought to tie Pelosi's remarks to Kerry, who has been relatively quiet about recent events in Iraq. "Her remarks are now advancing a blame-America-first attitude that Kerry himself has come dangerously close to advocating," Racicot said in a statement.
The president de-emphasized the troubles in Iraq during his appearance with the GOP caucus, making only a passing reference to the prison-abuse scandal. "He did not dwell on that at all," said Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio).
The lawmakers said Bush reiterated the firmness of the June 30 handover of sovereignty to Iraqis and likened it to riding a bicycle. "He talked about 'time to take the training wheels off,' " Pryce said. "The Iraqi people have been in training, and now it's time for them to take the bike and go forward."
Several Republicans were surprised Bush took no questions. He usually does take questions at such sessions, they said, including at a GOP lawmakers retreat in Philadelphia in late January. Bush's reluctance to field queries appeared to be a matter of some sensitivity.
Allen, for example, called yesterday's session a "good team meeting" with no dissent "that I heard." But asked whether Bush allowed questions, Allen replied: "I don't care to answer that question."
The meeting did not satisfy dissidents in the party. "There was nothing you haven't heard at other, public appearances," said Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), whose commitment to the GOP was questioned this week by Hastert. Asked whether he felt better because of Bush's assurances about improvement in Iraq, McCain replied with feigned relief: "Oh, much better."
Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (Tenn.), one of six House Republicans who voted against the 2003 resolution authorizing war in Iraq, said he saw opinion shifting toward his position. "You'd be amazed how many people have come up to me lately and said this war was a mistake," he said.
But Bush's allies in Congress pronounced the meeting a success. Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), said: "He did what he had to do. He had to give members increased confidence about Iraq." As for reports of panic within GOP ranks, Portman said, "I honestly do not see it."
Several GOP lawmakers said there is predictable unease in their caucus about developments in Iraq, but not as much as there would be if more House members faced serious reelection challenges this fall.
"Most members are from pretty safe districts," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), "so there's no panic up here." From a partisan standpoint, he said, the biggest problem with the Iraq war is that "it suffocates everything else," such as news about an improving economy.
Back at the White House, Bush sat down for more than two hours to discuss the situation in Iraq with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command.
Bush had nothing to say in public about the difficulties facing his administration. In addition to the violence, the prison scandal and the rush to assemble an Iraqi government before June 30, onetime U.S. ally Ahmad Chalabi severed his ties with the Coalition Provisional Authority after U.S. and Iraqi authorities raided offices of his Iraqi National Congress. Also yesterday, the GOP-led House rejected a Bush plan for military base closings, and in the Senate, Republicans decided they did not have enough votes to pass the budget and delayed the vote till next month.
"Hi, everybody, good to see you," the president said as he walked briskly into the meeting, followed by political adviser Karl Rove and other aides. Afterward, Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), asked about Iraq, told reporters Bush "will talk to you about it." Seconds later, Bush rushed by, ignoring reporters' questions.
Bush left about 15 minutes to shake hands with his listeners. Though the White House press secretary described the session as a pre-recess briefing on "a number of important priorities that we're pursuing," the lawmakers acknowledged it was more about morale.
"The president wasn't there to educate," said Sen. John E. Sununu (N.H.), who said he had not learned anything new. Sen. Wayne Allard (Colo.), was more blunt. "It was a rally," he said. "November's not that far away."