For about an hour and a half yesterday, Republicans had a new tax-cut policy.
Addressing a group of credit-union officials in the morning, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow said that hurricane recovery spending would "push to the back burner" the GOP's plans to extend the tax cuts this year.
But about 90 minutes later, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) held a news conference in his office and asserted that "we're not reexamining" the commitment to extend the tax cuts. "That's not an option," DeLay said, then, for emphasis, added: "Not an option."
Across the aisle and on the other side of the Capitol, Democrats were having similar difficulty staying on message. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) went to the Senate floor to announce his opposition to Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr., and to say that "senators should take notice" of the civil rights objections to the nominee.
But as those words were ringing through the chamber, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), was outside the cloakroom telling reporters that Reid "is speaking as an individual and as the senior senator from Nevada." The leader of the Democrats, Leahy said, is "not speaking for the caucus."
Katrina has washed away party discipline in Washington. With President Bush submerged -- a Gallup poll released yesterday showed that his support has actually fallen to 40 percent since his prime-time speech from Louisiana last week -- Republicans decided to stake out their own positions. And Democrats, with no obvious party leader, are quarreling over message and messenger.
The result: It's every man for himself in Washington. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but politics loves one.
The chairman of the House Republicans' campaign effort, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), told colleagues that they should drop plans for Social Security legislation this year. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) said Reynolds spoke only for himself.
Vice President Cheney said he sees no need for a "czar" to oversee the Katrina response. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said after meeting with administration figures yesterday: "I feel we need a czar, an administrator."
The message chaos in the governing party would seem to present an opportunity for the Democrats. But the opposition party is itself divided. Oppose Roberts? Pull out of Iraq? Repeal tax cuts? Democrats are split -- and leaderless.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean took a turn as party leader last week, comparing Roberts to DeLay and Bush aide Karl Rove. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has also vied to speak for the party, calling Bush "oblivious, in denial, dangerous."
On Sunday, former president Bill Clinton took his turn as party leader, attacking the Bush tax cuts. Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards, his former running mate, gave dueling auditions for party leader on Monday.
Yesterday, Reid took the party's reins. Apparently unable to settle on a theme for a morning news conference with Pelosi, the two leaders' news bulletin promised a smorgasbord: Katrina, the federal budget, judicial nominations and the Voting Rights Act.
In the afternoon, Reid held a session with reporters in which he acknowledged that his status as the party's Senate leader only goes so far. "Roberts will get plenty of votes" from Democrats, he said. Reid said he did not ask other Democrats to vote no because "you can only go to the well so many times."
As Reid abandoned hope of a party line on Roberts, Republicans down the hall were openly rebelling against the administration. After meeting with White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten, the GOP senators emerged decidedly off-message, demanding a recovery "czar" and criticizing Bush's spending habits.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) speculated that money will be saved because "we're going to be pulling troops out" of Iraq next year. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) demanded "some idea" from the administration on Katrina spending, saying: "You'll spill more on the ground than you'll get to the trough."
DeLay, for his part, seemed to be paying the administration no attention at all. A week ago, at a time when Bush was saying "we're going to have to cut unnecessary spending" to pay for the Katrina response, DeLay said the House Republicans had cut just about everything there was to cut.
At his weekly news conference yesterday, when a reporter asked about future supplemental spending for Katrina, DeLay interrupted. "We don't know that there's going to be another supplemental," he said.
This seemed odd because Bolten had said two weeks earlier that he expected "a need for additional supplemental spending."
The reporter pressed, saying "we assume there is" going to be more Katrina spending.
"No," DeLay said, "we don't."