Is Bush Losing Congress?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 29, 2005; 12:09 PM

His second-term agenda is in shambles. His spending plan for Hurricane Katrina has torn his party apart. Support for his increasingly unpopular war is eroding. His political capital is spent.

And now he's lost his Hammer.

For President Bush, who was already seeing his influence wane in Congress, yesterday's indictment of Rep. Tom DeLay -- forcing the iron-fisted House majority leader to step down from his leadership post -- was an enormous blow.

Furthermore, DeLay's troubles add to the sense that the Republican Party and the White House are under siege, plagued by missteps and ethics scandals.

Breakup of a Power Couple

Dan Balz explains the stakes in The Washington Post: "Since the fall of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1998, no two Republicans have been more responsible for the GOP's recent electoral and legislative successes than DeLay and President Bush, a power tandem whose strengths have complemented one another repeatedly. Bush has been the party's public face, direction-setter and most effective campaigner. But in Washington, DeLay has been an iron force who bent the system to his will and priorities.

"Over the years, DeLay raised and moved vast sums of money to buttress GOP candidates, kept the party's often-narrow majority together to move a Bush agenda that drew little Democratic support and changed the terms by which K Street lobbyists did business with Congress."

But now, a sea change.

"On almost every front, Republicans see trouble. Bush is at the low point of his presidency, with Iraq, hurricane relief, rising gasoline prices and another Supreme Court vacancy all problems to be solved."

And, Balz writes: "What worries Republicans is the confluence of a large number of scandals when Bush and the GOP Congress are at the weakest point in years. In the same fortnight as DeLay's indictment and [Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist coming under an ethics cloud, David H. Safavian was arrested in connection with the Abramoff investigation days after resigning as the government's top procurement officer."

How could it possibly get worse?

"Finally, the special counsel investigation into whether White House senior adviser Karl Rove or others in the administration broke the law by leaking the name of the CIA's Valerie Plame is nearing a conclusion."

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "President Bush was never personally close to Tom DeLay, but he always knew that he needed him badly. . . .

"The combined loss of DeLay's leadership in the House, where he was the main enforcer of the Republican agenda, and the shift of political focus to another alleged ethics misstep, is a double blow to the president at a time when he cannot easily bounce back from it, political observers said yesterday."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write on Newsweek.com that Bush and DeLay were not bosom buddies: "Bush has never campaigned for DeLay, who is one of the few Texas politicians in Washington the president doesn't socialize with. As a result, DeLay's indictment is unlikely to upset many White House officials. Bush's aides offered only tepid support for the majority leader earlier this year, as speculation swirled about his demise. When pushed on the nature of DeLay's friendship with the president, Bush's aides like to say they aren't close. . . .

"The White House has little to gain from jumping into the sewer with DeLay, even if it has gained handsomely from DeLay's work in the past. Bush's aides like to cite DeLay's effectiveness as a leader, suggesting their warm feelings will disappear as soon as he becomes ineffective."

Bush to Congress: Pay Attention

Ironically, just a few hours before news of the DeLay indictment swept through Washington, Bush was taking an unusually transparent step to patch up support for the Iraq war on the Hill.

Bush made brief remarks in the Rose Garden after meeting with Gens. John Abizaid and George Casey. He virtually begged members of Congress to pay attention to the two men.

"I asked the Generals to go up to Capitol Hill to brief members of the House and Senate on our strategy for victory, on our operations in Iraq," Bush said.

"Members of Congress will get the latest information about our strategy. And I want to thank them for taking time out of their schedules to listen to these two -- to these two Generals."

And again: "I urge the members of Congress to attend the briefings with Generals Abizaid and Casey."

And again: "As members of Congress speak with Generals Abizaid and Casey, I'm confident they'll see what I see -- our leaders, these two Generals are men of vision and determination, and it is their leadership that is helping bring victory in the war on terror."

Bush's Own Strategy: Repetition

There may be a lack of clarity when it comes to U.S. strategy in Iraq, but Bush's message strategy couldn't be clearer.

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "As the gulf between Bush's viewpoint on the war and views held by some members of Congress and the public grows wider, the president has pressed ahead with an unshakable certitude, restating his strategy again and again, with an apparent faith that people will come to understand it. . . .

"This ceaseless hammering of a message has become a hallmark for Bush, a faith in repetition that he has applied to his plans for Social Security as well, yet the replaying of the messages has not achieved their desired effects.

"The presidential message has not changed for months. Bush has delivered it on national television and gave it again Wednesday as he stood just outside the Oval Office."

The New Number Two?

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek.com: "U.S. intelligence officials and counterterrorism analysts are questioning whether a slain terrorist--described by President Bush today as the 'second-most-wanted Al Qaeda leader in Iraq'--was as significant a figure as the Bush administration is claiming.

"In a brief Rose Garden appearance Wednesday morning, Bush seized on the killing of Abu Azzam by joint U.S-Iraqi forces in a shootout last Sunday as fresh evidence that the United States is turning the tide against the Iraqi insurgency. . . .

"But veteran counterterrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann said today there are ample reasons to question whether Abu Azzam was really the No. 2 figure in the Iraqi insurgency. He noted that U.S. officials have made similar claims about a string of purportedly high-ranking terrorist operatives who had been captured or killed in the past, even though these alleged successes made no discernible dent in the intensity of the insurgency.

" 'If I had a nickel for every No. 2 and No. 3 they've arrested or killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I'd be a millionaire,' says Kohlmann, a New York-based analyst who tracks the Iraq insurgency and who first expressed skepticism about the Azzam claims in a posting on The Counterterrorism Blog."

The General's New Tune

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "The top U.S. commander in Iraq backed away on Wednesday from his prediction that a substantial pullout of U.S. troops could begin by next spring, as the White House undertakes a new campaign to win public support for the war effort.

"Gen. George Casey's latest assessment came as President Bush -- down in the polls and criticized for his hurricane response -- starts to turn his focus back to the fight against terrorism and to Iraq, the issues that helped him win re-election last year."

As part of the blitz, "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney plan speeches on Iraq in the next few days, followed by a presidential address in Washington on Oct. 6. . . .

"Cheney's speech is planned for Monday from Camp Lejeune, a Marine base in North Carolina. Rice plans to address some of the administration's political opponents Friday at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs."

The Medicaid Rebellion

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Pressed hard by Gulf state governors, senators from both political parties warned the White House yesterday to drop its opposition to a proposed expansion of Medicaid for Hurricane Katrina evacuees and devastated states -- or face a potentially embarrassing political rout."

Mary Curtius writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt outlined the administration's opposition to [Republican Sen. Charles E.] Grassley's healthcare proposal in a letter to Senate leaders Tuesday, calling it 'inadvisable' and a duplication of administration efforts.

"Leavitt's criticism triggered an unusual outburst and a rare threat from the normally taciturn Iowa senator at Wednesday's hearing.

" 'I would suggest that people at the White House need to know that the chances of our getting a reconciliation bill moving out of my committee are very difficult if we don't get this behind us,' Grassley said, referring to a key spending measure for the 2006 budget that his panel is supposed to finish by Oct. 19.

"The threat elicited gasps from the packed hearing room. Grassley is usually one of the administration's staunchest supporters, and he had previously urged senators to quickly move the spending bill, which includes a recommended $10 billion in cuts to Medicaid over five years."

Bush's Military Proposal

William Douglas and Drew Brown write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee says he and his fellow governors aren't exactly jumping for joy to hear that President Bush is debating whether the Department of Defense should become the lead agency in responding to major domestic disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

" 'I haven't heard any governor say `That's a great idea. I'll give up my power to an unelected general to oversee my state,' '' said Huckabee, a Republican and the chairman of the bipartisan National Governors Association. 'That would be a very significant, almost revolutionary change in government policy and practice.'

"If Bush pushes the idea, he's likely to face a barrage of opposition from governors, state and municipal officials, civil libertarians and some military experts, who argue that expanding the active-duty armed services' role in local disasters would trample on cherished states' rights and burden the military, which already is stretched thin by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Supreme Court Watch

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush is close to naming a successor to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and could announce his choice this week, Republicans close to the White House said Wednesday.

"One name that was the source of enormous speculation in Washington legal and political circles was Harriet E. Miers, the White House counsel, who is a leader in the search for Justice O'Connor's successor. Ms. Miers, 60, was the first woman to become a partner at a major Texas law firm and the first woman to be president of the State Bar of Texas. At one point, Ms. Miers was Mr. Bush's personal lawyer."

Meet Harriet Miers

Miers is considered intensely loyal to Bush. At the White House, she has been promoted twice, from staff secretary to deputy chief of staff for policy, and then to legal counsel. Bush once called her a "pit bull in size 6 shoes."

Here are some recent profiles from The Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News .

Gas Shortage?

I've been noting for the last few days how odd it was for Bush to call for Americans to conserve energy in the face of a national gas shortage -- when that gas shortage doesn't exist.

Sheila McNulty writes in the Financial Times that the shortage is coming.

"President George W. Bush's call for the US public to conserve energy is aimed at preventing a run on petrol at a time when the US is precariously short of it. . . .

" 'The president's best bet for the next two weeks is to try to see if he can get Americans to stop doing discretionary driving without creating panic,' said Amy Myers Jaffe, research fellow at the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy. 'He's in a very challenging position.' "

Cheney's Cane

The Associated Press reports: "Vice President Dick Cheney walked with a cane Wednesday as he returned to work at the White House after weekend surgery to repair aneurysms behind both knees.

"Cheney appeared to move gingerly in the Rose Garden when he appeared with President Bush and military leaders. Bush glanced behind him to see the vice president's progress down several steps."

Valerie Plame (Non) Watch

Media Nation blogger Dan Kennedy writes about Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff's exasperation that neither the New York Times nor Time magazine pursued the story of who had revealed Plame's identity.

" 'Our primary obligation is not to protect our sources. Our primary obligation is to inform our readers. And I think in the Plame matter there has been a bit of blurring of that fundamental point,' Isikoff said. 'Once you make a promise of confidentiality, you've got to keep it. But that doesn't end the conversation. That doesn't end the reporting. You're still a reporter. You can't use that conversation, because it was conducted off the record and you're honor-bound to that. But don't stop your reporting.' "

Time reporter Matthew Cooper, Isikoff said, "should have kept contacting Rove, attempting to cajole him into going on the record and leaning on him with information gleaned from other sources. Instead, Isikoff asserted, 'It seems like Time stopped reporting.' "

Pardon Watch

CBSNews.com reports: "President Bush granted pardons Wednesday to 14 people, including a member of the mineworkers union who was convicted for his role in bombings at a West Virginia coal mine, a counterfeiter and a bootlegger. . . .

"CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller reports that the pardons Wednesday bring to 58 the number of pardons granted by Mr. Bush.

"By comparison, his father, former President George H.W. Bush, granted 74 in four years; former President Bill Clinton granted 396 in eight years; former President Ronald Reagan did 393 in eight; former President Jimmy Carter did 534 in four. And former President Richard Nixon, who got one of Mr. Ford's 382 pardons, granted 863, reports Knoller."

So the Bushes are not a forgiving bunch?

The Associated Press has more on Rufus Edward Harris's pardon. He was sentenced to two years in prison for selling bootleg whiskey more than 40 years ago.

"Harris requested the pardon about four years ago, his wife, Frankie, recalled.

" 'He just said he was so sorry that he had that on his record,' said Frankie Harris, who cried when she heard the news. 'He just wanted to clear his record before he died.'

"When nobody contacted them after awhile, she said, Rufus Harris figured he'd been turned down for a pardon.

"The 71-year-old former car and tractor salesman was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease about a year ago, his wife said. He cannot walk anymore or feed himself."

Dream On

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., writing in the Financial Times, dreams about what he would say if Bush asked him for advice on Iraq. "I would seize an appropriate moment to declare victory - and cut and run, Mr President. . . . [O]ur true national interests lie in ending this senseless war."

Jim Hoagland writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "What George W. Bush needs right now is his own version of Clark Clifford. He needs a friend close enough to tell him that his presidency is failing -- and wise enough to describe what Bush must do to salvage it."

White House, Watch Out!

The new Reliable Sourcettes are coming after your dirty laundry.

In their Live Online discussion yesterday, new Washington Post gossip columnists Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts promised "to OWN the Jenna Bush beat" -- and to ask the White House other questions the regular press corps won't.

'Waving Like a Maniac'

Steven Elbow writes in the Capital Times of Madison, Wisc.: "Madison's Ray and Diane Maida say they were treated to an example of how President Bush just doesn't get it as they participated in the anti-war protest in Washington.

"The Maidas, who lost their son, Mark, to a roadside bomb south of Baghdad last May, were standing outside the White House Monday morning when they saw a motorcade approach. They quickly donned T-shirts emblazoned with pictures of their dead son as an act of protest.

"The president, spying the couple on the sidewalk from his limousine, smiled and waved.

" 'He was waving like a maniac,' Ray Maida said. 'He thought we were there to support him. He was clueless that we were there to show him the face of war.' "

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