Growing frustration over President Bush’s immigration plan and lack of fiscal discipline came to a head behind closed doors at last weekend’s Republican retreat in Philadelphia.
House lawmakers, stunned by the intensity of their constituents’ displeasure at some of Mr. Bush’s key domestic policies, gave his political strategist Karl Rove an earful behind closed doors.
“It was intense, but I was not surprised at the tone of questioning during Rove’s session,” said Rep. Tom Feeney, Florida Republican. “But then this was supposed to be a no-holds-barred discussion, and our constituents are upset.”
“They were all over Karl on immigration and spending,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and a leading House proponent of controlling the nation’s borders and curbing illegal immigration. “This is the first time I didn’t even have to raise the immigration issue myself. Everyone else did.”
Mr. Rove addressed the retreat Jan. 29, followed by Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten the next day and Mr. Bush on Saturday.
“It’s no great secret that some members of Congress don’t agree with every single thing the president is doing,” said White House spokesman Trent Duffy. “But he is trying to lead the country, to broaden the party. He promoted his ideas and his agenda for those in the room.”
By most accounts, Mr. Rove and Mr. Bolten received the worst of it.
“I would not say we jumped all over Karl, but we did have a very pointed discussion about the concerns we are hearing from our base,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican.
“Most of our members are very concerned about what they perceived as amnesty for illegal aliens under the president’s immigration proposal,” said Mrs. Blackburn, adding that she made it “very clear” to Mr. Rove that “this is something I’m not going to support.”
She said spending is another issue that lawmakers told Mr. Rove they were concerned about.
Many of the 218 Republicans at the retreat said immigration and overspending had emerged as the top two issues in their home districts.
“I just got the results of a poll in our district, and it’s 2-to-1 against the president’s immigration plan,” a House member said confidentially.
Mr. Rove gave a presentation defending the president’s agenda, then fielded questions from the lawmakers attending the annual meeting of all Republicans in the House.
Mr. Bolten spent about three hours with the assembled lawmakers, explaining and defending the president’s spending plan, said those who attended.
“I would say 97 out of 100 of our members who asked questions laid into him pretty good about spending and the lack of discipline on the administration’s part,” Mr. Feeney said.
“I felt like the message had been sent from the people [that Republican lawmakers] had relied on for votes — not just from disgruntled conservatives in the conference,” Mr. Feeney said. “The conference has deep concerns about the Medicare prescription-drug benefits and that we need to get focused on what we stand for as Republicans.”
The president’s 2005 budget proposed a growth in non-homeland defense discretionary spending of less than one half of 1 percent, an area where most Republican lawmakers want a freeze.
“They certainly talked about fiscal discipline, and the president said this is going to be a tough year,” said Mr. Duffy, the White House spokesman. “The highway bill is going to be the first test, and we do have to control spending.”
In the days since the president and his top advisers heard the complaints from lawmakers in their own party, the White House position has changed, several members said.
The White House “has told us they will support a freeze if we have the votes, but some of us want the president to take the lead on this,” confided a Republican House member who has been negotiating with the administration on the budget.
Many House critics of the Bush immigration plan said privately that the proposal was created to win Mr. Bush a larger share of the Hispanic vote in November and to mollify Mexican President Vicente Fox. Mr. Fox has supported relaxed U.S. immigration laws as a means to alleviate economic problems in Mexico.
Mr. Duffy said the president delivered a passionate defense of his immigration plan, telling the Republican caucus that his policy is not a political ploy.
“He said he didn’t do it for politics [but] because that’s what he believes is good for the country,” Mr. Duffy said, adding that Mr. Bush drove his point home by saying, “I’m from Texas and I know this issue.”
Only one congressional Republican at the Philadelphia retreat, Florida Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, spoke in favor of the president’s immigration proposal, several members in attendance said.