In the face of declining approval ratings, the White House and Republican congressional leaders are scrambling to revise their political agenda, moving out on separate tracks that may only exacerbate the divisions surfacing in the party.
With President Bush stumbling politically, the administration is attempting to reshape its agenda to rally support among social conservatives while winning over fiscal conservatives disaffected by the huge growth in the federal budget over the past five years, according to White House aides and policy consultants.
But the White House effort to solidify Bush's conservative base risks alienating moderates who have supported him in the past. In a Veterans Day speech, for example, he called on the Senate to support a constitutional amendment outlawing flag burning. In the same speech, he lashed out at critics of his Iraq war policy, and White House officials plan to reassert the president's conservative credentials on spending and border security.
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have vowed to move on their own agenda -- with or without the White House. The House Republican Conference held a half-day, closed-door retreat last month to begin plotting a legislative strategy for next year, and House GOP leaders will gather at the end of this month to flesh it out.
"We're going to be hand in hand with the president as much as we can. He needs us to help him out, and we need him," said Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), chairman of the conference. "But we're not going to do it at our own expense."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the current fixation on conservative voters may jeopardize his party's prospects for holding on to some of its seats. "If the leadership just plays to the base, they're going to be a minority leadership in the next Congress," he said.
The diverging tracks pose risks for the White House and congressional Republicans, according to some lawmakers and political experts.
Bush, for example, may attempt to try to shape his legacy by pressing to restructure the tax code, but GOP lawmakers may be unwilling to risk doing anything so bold that would incur voters' wrath with the president's popularity at an all-time low. Bush's latest effort to defend his Iraq policy may stir up renewed controversy over his justification for going to war that congressional Republicans would rather avoid.
Conversely, if GOP lawmakers stray too far from the president's wish list, they could be stymied by the combined opposition of Democrats and the White House.
In a bid to mollify conservative critics angry about runaway federal spending, Bush plans to renew his call for Congress to enact cuts in social spending outlined by White House budget makers, they say. Simultaneously, Bush intends to stress the conservative elements of issues dividing many Republicans, including his plan to revise immigration laws to grant temporary legal status to the 11 million undocumented workers now in the United States.
While the president still advocates a temporary worker program, he plans to couch it more in terms of border security than as a practical and compassionate way of extending legal status to undocumented workers who came to the country in search of economic security.
The temporary worker plan has split congressional Republicans. Some favor it as a way to fill critical jobs and bring millions of people into the mainstream. But others equate the idea with amnesty for illegal immigrants who are overwhelming public services, particularly in communities near the border with Mexico.
"I think what you'll see is a return or a newfound emphasis on the conservative side of compassionate conservative," said Douglas J. Besharov, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who consults with the White House on social policy matters. "The history of the phrase was meant to signal that 'I'm not one of those heartless conservatives. I'm a conservative with a heart.' "
Long before the White House began tacking to the right on immigration policy, GOP leaders were plotting a get-tough stand, driven by a growing concern among Western lawmakers about the porous nature of their states' borders with Mexico. Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he hopes the House can take up an immigration and border security bill after the Thanksgiving break.
No matter how tough the White House gets, Republicans say the House will be tougher.
"We won't be hand in hand with the White House on immigration," Pryce said.
The political maneuvering has been touched off by GOP alarm over Bush's shrinking approval ratings and the growing public discontent over the war. After the indictment of a top vice presidential aide in the CIA leak case, congressional Democrats have been raising fresh questions about White House claims concerning Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the war, with many saying Bush distorted intelligence to build support.
In his Veterans Day speech on Friday, Bush accused war critics of trying to reconstruct history. "The stakes in the global war on terror are too high and the national interest is too important for politicians to throw out false charges," he said.
Bush and other top White House officials will continue to forcefully dispute war critics, while doing more to focus public attention on the progress troops are making in Iraq, aides said. "Some of the critics are trying to rewrite their own voting records," said Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director.
The new direction marks a significant shift for a president more accustomed to pursuing ambitious policy goals than defending past decisions. After winning reelection last year, Bush said he would invest his political capital in institution-altering initiatives. Among them: remaking the Social Security system, revising the tax code and rewriting the immigration laws.
But now, as he struggles to regain his political footing, Bush is forced to revisit the past. He also is scaling back his policy ambitions in an effort to win back public confidence and quell a growing rebellion among once-supportive congressional Republicans.
"His problem is not so much with social conservatives, or the part that cares about national security," said Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation. "The part that has the most angst are those who care about the size and scope of the government. He needs to take control of a smarter and smaller government mandate."
There is widespread sentiment that House Republicans need to pull away from the White House, but it is not clear whether the strategy is wise, said one senior GOP House member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of crossing the leadership. The president's megaphone is so loud that a declaration of independence may be politically futile, he said. And ultimately, Bush has to sign the bills that reach his desk.
"Of course, we realize we have a lot of work to do. We read the polls," agreed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "But we also know that to split into a bunch of different groups right now is probably the worst thing we can do."
Besides, the Democrats will tie congressional Republicans to Bush no matter what they do, just as Republicans morphed Democratic candidates into Bill Clinton in 1994, when Clinton was unpopular, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"It's not possible after five years of being a rubber stamp for the House Republicans to make a declaration of independence now," Emanuel said. "They would have to reject everything they've done for the last five years, and they're not capable of that."