- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2005

President Bush’s lackluster job-approval rating will make it harder to push through his second-term tax and Social Security reforms, and could undermine House conservatives’ uphill battle against runaway spending, some lawmakers say.

“It does make it harder,” said Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican. “Certainly, it doesn’t help.”

Mr. Bush’s job rating dipped below 50 percent in a new Associated Press poll and registered 52 percent in a Gallup poll last week. That is well below what re-elected presidents in the past have scored before being sworn in for their second terms.

“It is much better if a very popular president is going out and selling his agenda,” said Mr. Ryan. “A 65-percent job approval is probably more effective than 50 percent.”

Rep. Patrick McHenry, North Carolina Republican, maintains that while the war in Iraq is depressing the president’s approval rating, Mr. Bush still has a mandate for his domestic agenda — certainly among conservatives.

“That agenda is bold enough that conservatives will rally around tax and Social Security reform as well as true budget restraint,” Mr. McHenry said.

He and fellow conservatives, whose efforts to control spending were dealt a blow by House Republican leadership in a private meeting last week, want to see the president win popular acceptance for his legislative priorities. They see a link between gaining those priorities and adopting the conservatives’ proposed spending restraints that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay nixed last week.

House Republican leaders argued that while they also want to control spending, the proposed rules would deny leadership the “flexibility to negotiate” with House Democrats and with the Senate.

But House conservatives say tighter budget rules would strengthen leadership’s negotiating position.

“Stricter rules on spending mean leadership, in negotiations, can go out and say, ‘Our rules in the House prohibit us from doing this,’” said Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, the new chairman of the House Republican Study Committee (RSC), which is made up of 95 fiscal and social conservatives.

Conservative leaders outside Congress were less restrained in criticizing the Republican leadership.

“What the leadership is saying is, ‘Give us fiscal discipline, but not right now,’” American Conservative Union Executive Director Richard Lessner said.

Some Republicans worry that failure to fulfill their 2004 campaign pledge to constituents to halt runaway spending could cost them seats in the 2006 congressional elections, and say they believe Mr. Bush is really in their corner on the issue.

“We know we have a very strong ally in the president,” said Mr. Pence. “Within two days of his re-election, he specifically mentioned budget-process reform as priority of second term — and a line-item veto.”

Conservative lawmakers saw their two top proposed spending rules changes go down to defeat by 2-1 margins in the private meeting of House Republicans last week.

Mr. McHenry said that the defeat, nonetheless, showed a significant number of House Republicans “are serious about restraining spending — 40 percent of our members were trying to pass even more stringent spending rules than we have in place.”

“That is significant,” he said.

The RSC chairman is no less resolute.

“The message conservatives in the House wanted to send by seeking to amend the rules … is that we are going to take every opportunity to restore fiscal discipline to the federal budget,” said Mr. Pence. “I think we got that message across. We got positive feedback from members.”

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