End of a Rubber Stamp Era?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 21, 2005; 11:57 AM

For the past several years, Washington has been a city of rubber stamps. When President Bush asked for something, the Republican-controlled Congress by and large gave it to him. Bush, in turn, hasn't vetoed a single bill. With a very few exceptions, when things went astray in the executive branch, the legislative branch didn't get all exercised about it.

But it's possible the era of rubber stamps is coming to an end.

Bush's proposed massive spending spree in the Gulf Coast is ripping apart his ruling party -- even as his stumbling response to a national disaster, his increasingly unpopular war and high gas prices are sending his poll numbers plummeting and emboldening the opposition party.

Shailagh Murray and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "Congressional Republicans from across the ideological spectrum yesterday rejected the White House's open-wallet approach to rebuilding the Gulf Coast, a sign that the lockstep GOP discipline that George W. Bush has enjoyed for most of his presidency is eroding on Capitol Hill. . . .

"The pushback on Katrina aid . . . represents the loudest and most widespread dissent Bush has faced from his own party since it took full control of Congress in 2002. As polls show the president's approval numbers falling, there is growing concern among lawmakers that GOP margins in Congress could shrink next year, and even rank-and-file Republicans are complaining that Bush is shirking the difficult budget decisions that must accompany the rebuilding bonanza. . . .

"The resistance suggests that Bush's second term could turn out far rockier and more contentious than his first. One indicator many Republicans are watching to gauge whether Bush is becoming a liability for the party is in Pennsylvania, where Rick Santorum, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, is trailing state treasurer Bob Casey Jr. by double digits."

Public mockery from your allies is always a bad sign. But Murray and VandeHei describe this scene from yesterday:

"Trying to allay mounting concerns, White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten met with Republican senators for an hour after their regular Tuesday lunch. Senators emerged to say they were annoyed by the lack of concrete ideas for paying the Hurricane Katrina bill.

" 'Very entertaining,' Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said sarcastically as he left the session. 'I haven't heard any specifics from the administration.' "

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "Conservative House Republicans plan to recommend on Wednesday more than $500 billion in savings over 10 years to compensate for the costs of Hurricane Katrina as lawmakers continue to struggle to develop a consensus on the fiscal approach to the disaster."

Several of their proposals are sure to inflame the White House. Among them: Delaying the start of the new Medicare prescription drug coverage and canceling the Moon-Mars initiative that NASA announced on Monday.

And Hulse writes that in spite of Bush's apparent reluctance to do so, "Senators said they continued to press the White House to name a prominent individual to oversee the relief effort, creating a central contact point for the flow of money, as well as many legislative proposals."

Where Will the Money Come From?

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "On Friday, as official Washington fretted over the potential fiscal calamity of Hurricane Katrina, the Treasury Department let Americans know where the money would come from to rebuild the Gulf Coast: foreign investors.

"The latest Treasury report on foreign lending showed that investors abroad poured $101.4 billion into the United States in July alone -- a voracious clip -- to snap up stocks, bonds and everything else available. So while the federal government keeps spending and while tax cuts remain politically sacrosanct, continued foreign investment should help pick up the estimated $200 billion cleanup tab for Katrina and further postpone a final reckoning on the budget deficit."

John Dickerson , writing in Slate, reminds us of one famous example of Bush administration insouciance regarding deficits. He also uncorks one I hadn't heard before:

"Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil says that when he tried to resist tax cuts, Vice President Cheney replied: 'Reagan proved that deficits don't matter.' During last year's presidential campaign, a senior administration official put their worldview more bluntly: 'Name me one person who has lost an election because of the deficit.' "

And Dickerson writes that historically, at least, White House aides have not thought that "all the carping about nickels and dimes and billions [on the Hill] is genuine. Members rail against a budget that's out of balance but then lunge to protect their pet projects when they're under the knife. (Karl Rove can reportedly do a spot-on imitation of a congressman who cycles from budget-cutting bravado to sniveling pleas for hometown pork.)"

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Agenda Watch

Kristin Roberts reports for Reuters: "The recovery from Hurricane Katrina may temporarily sideline some parts of U.S. President George W. Bush's domestic agenda, including efforts to make the administration's tax cuts permanent, U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow said on Tuesday.

" 'It's taken over the national agenda and I think it will for a while,' Snow said of Katrina. 'I think it will push to the back burner some issues that otherwise would have been on the agenda now -- the estate tax, tax (cut) permanency, GSEs and other things.' Snow told the National Association of Federal Credit Unions.

"Snow's statement, which he offered before launching into prepared comments for the credit union audience, marked the first time a member of the Bush administration has said Katrina could cause delays in the broader economic agenda."

In a separate story, Reuters quotes White House spokesman Trent Duffy trying to walk back Snow's comments: "He's saying what we all are -- the Katrina recovery is the top priority, but we remain committed to President Bush's economic program, which has helped create millions of jobs."

But Murray and VandeHei write in their Post story that "White House officials said Snow was accurately reflecting Bush's intentions."

Supreme Court Watch

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "Senate leaders warned President George W. Bush on Wednesday that his next nominee to the Supreme Court will likely face a far more contentious confirmation battle than John Roberts, who is poised to become U.S. chief justice."

Safavian Watch

Philip Shenon and Anne E. Kornblut write in the New York Times: "Congressional Democrats said on Tuesday that the arrest of a former senior White House budget official involved in organizing the federal response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the need for an independent investigation of the government's reaction to the disaster, especially since the official is married to a leading Republican Congressional aide.

"The official, David H. Safavian, 38, a lawyer who was chief of procurement policy in the Office of Management and Budget until he resigned on Friday, was arrested Monday on charges of lying to federal investigators about his relationship with Jack Abramoff, a Washington lobbyist at the center of a corruption investigation at the Justice Department. . . .

"Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, said the arrest of Mr. Safavian undermined the credibility of a House Republican plan to investigate the troubled hurricane-relief effort through a committee to be led by Representative Thomas M. Davis III, Republican of Virginia. Mr. Safavian's wife, Jennifer, is chief counsel for oversight and investigations on the House Government Reform Committee, which Mr. Davis leads."

And in a fine example of the Senate's rubber-stamping of most Bush appointees, regardless of possible warning signs, Susan Schmidt and R. Jeffrey Smith write in The Washington Post: "David H. Safavian, the Bush administration official arrested Monday, initially failed to disclose lobbying work he had done for several controversial foreign clients when he went before a Senate panel last year to be confirmed as chief of the White House's federal procurement office.

"The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held up Safavian's nomination for more than a year, in part because of lawmakers' concerns about lobbying work for two men later accused of links to suspected terrorist organizations, according to committee documents. Safavian did not disclose his firm's representation of the men until questioned in writing by the committee's staff, and initially failed to tell the panel he had registered as a foreign agent for two controversial African regimes.

"The Senate panel nevertheless approved him unanimously and the Senate followed suit on Nov. 21, 2004."

The Stakeholder blog from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is watching Safavian developments closely.

Poll Watch

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "Hurricane Katrina did more than wipe out much of the Mississippi coastline and flood New Orleans. The storm and the bungled government response eroded President Bush's political standing and dampened enthusiasm for his second-term agenda. . . .

"As many Republicans fear, the survey shows signs of conflict between Bush's top two priorities: the Iraq war and post-Katrina recovery. . . .

"Given several choices to raise government money for Katrina recovery, people most often chose reduced spending on Iraq -- named by 42 percent. About three in 10, 29 percent, wanted to delay or cancel Republican tax cuts. That's seven in 10 backing options that Bush doesn't even have on the table."

The poll shows that 40 percent of Americans approve of the job Bush is doing, while 57 percent disapprove.

Here are the full results .

The Latest Bush Trip

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush returned to the storm-battered Gulf Coast on Tuesday, telling local leaders that amid the rampant devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina there are promising signs of recovery."

Here is the text of Bush's brief public comments in Louisiana.

First Lady Watch

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Laura Bush, former inner-city teacher, says Hurricane Katrina could have a silver lining if it forces the nation to respond 'in a different way' to difficult poverty and racial problems.

" 'A large percentage of our population probably doesn't realize what inner cities are really like and has looked away from that,' Bush told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. . . .

"With her popularity in polls twice that of her husband's, which is stuck at a record-low level, Mrs. Bush often plays the president's chief defender and puts a smiling, trusted face on administration policies. . . .

"The first lady repeated her desire to see her husband nominate a woman to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whose retirement will leave Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Supreme Court's sole female, and said 'there are qualified women that are in the pool' of potential nominees being considered."

Today's Calendar

Bush speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition's anniversary lunch today, which is celebrating the accomplishments of Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman.

Bush then holds a photo-op before a meeting with his Commission to Strengthen Social Security. That may feel more like a wake.

Finally Bush meets with the speaker of Iraq's parliament.

President Shuts Down Runway

Remember all the fuss when President Clinton's haircut aboard Air Force One reportedly shut down two runways at LAX for about an hour?

Well, Matthew L. Wald writes in the New York Times that the longest runway at the Las Cruces, N.M., airport "has been closed since President Bush made a campaign stop in August 2004."

That's more than a year.

"It has gouges six inches deep and a hundred yards long, which the city says were put there by two Air Force cargo planes accompanying the president. Las Cruces put the damage at $2.1 million."

The Air Force, which had been warned that their planes were too heavy, is now offering $600,000 for repairs.

Bush at the time was on an intensive three-day fundraising trip that netted him $4.6 million.

I noted in my August 27, 2004 column that the press charter suffered an unusually bumpy landing at Las Cruces. I guess now we know why.

Don't Come Back

Carla Marinucci writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Tuesday he wants President Bush to delay a planned October fundraising visit to California because the governor fears it will siphon off donations he needs to help his Nov. 8 special election measures. . . .

"Schwarzenegger spoke glowingly of the president at last year's GOP national convention and campaigned for Bush in Ohio just days before the 2004 election, but more recently, the relationship seems to have been strained.

"The governor turned down an invitation to ride with Bush on Air Force One during the president's August visit to California -- and now, some national Republicans suggest he appears to be distancing himself from the president at a time Bush needs the former Hollywood actor's star power."

White House Mood Watch

David Gregory writes in an NBC blog: "Had a quick chat today with a young White House aide who normally loves to kid around a bit before getting down to business, but today she was more sober than usual.

"To state the obvious, these have been rough days at the White House -- at all levels of the West Wing."

Humor From Behind the Firewall

Maureen Dowd , in the newly pricey New York Times opinion section: "The president won't be happy until he dons a yellow slicker and actually takes the place of Anderson Cooper, violently blown about by Rita as he talks into a camera lens lashed with water, hanging onto a mailbox as he's hit by a flying pig in a squall, sucked up by a waterspout in the eye of the storm over the Dry Tortugas.

"Then maybe he'll go back to the White House and do his job instead of running down to the Gulf Coast for silly disaster-ops every other day."

Still Free

Harold Meyerson writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "Why has President Bush placed Karl Rove atop the government's endeavors to rebuild the Gulf Coast? Rove knows as much about massive relief and reconstruction efforts as your pet schnauzer, but he's not devoid of germane expertise.

"In the fall of 2002, as the legislation establishing the DHS was wending its way through Congress, Rove had a Rovean idea: Embed some extraneous, ideological criteria in the bill -- criteria that the Democrats would obviously oppose -- and then campaign against those Democrats for being soft on homeland security."

When it comes to relief legislation, Meyerson writes: "Rove is certainly up to the task of crafting some poison-pill provisions that would make it difficult for Democrats to vote yes."

Impeachment (Non) Watch

A handful of bloggers have been pressing other polling outfits to do what Zogby did early this summer, and ask the public if it would consider impeaching the president.

As I wrote in my July 6 column : "More than four in 10 Americans, according to a recent Zogby poll, say that if President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment.

"But you wouldn't know it from following the news. Only three mainstream outlets that I can find made even cursory mention of the poll last week when it came out."

There was scant little coverage after my column, either. And no other polling companies asked anything remotely similar.

Now one blogger has gotten word that even Zogby won't be asking about impeachment anymore, either.

Lukery Land reprints an e-mail received from a Zogby staffer informing him: "We have decided to not to ask the impeachment question again unless it is raised in Congress. We aim to remain as impartial as possible with our questions."

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