- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

At the height of Friday’s contentious Senate debate over immigration legislation, Minority Leader Harry Reid took to the floor and delivered a blunt rebuke of President Bush.

“The one question I ask throughout all this: Where is President Bush? On an issue which is this important, I haven’t seen his congressional liaison working the halls,” the Nevada Democrat said. “I haven’t seen them here.”

Although such a reproach may not be surprising coming from a Democratic leader, at least two former senior Bush administration officials say he is right on the mark.

They say that recent White House missteps with Congress, from last week’s immigration bill debate to the furor over Mr. Bush’s decision to allow an Arab company to control operations at several U.S. ports, have exposed the administration’s flawed and failing system for handling its affairs with lawmakers.

“One thing’s for sure: There’s been a disconnect between the White House and the Hill,” said one former White House aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They have to reinstitute a chain of command because the breakdown is organization.”

Although there have been serious missteps in recent weeks, there were signs that top White House officials were developing a “tin ear” last summer, when Mr. Bush nominated his White House Counsel, Harriet Miers, for an open Supreme Court slot. The move was promptly withdrawn after conservatives bitterly complained and Republicans on Capitol Hill abandoned the president.

While Democrats contend that Mr. Bush has never listened to them, Republicans are now feeling equally ignored.

“There are plenty of Republicans who have voiced objections about the way the White House has handled relations, not just Democrats,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. “There’s a level of arrogance and hubris that members find mystifying. The president has utterly failed to conduct business adequately with members on the Hill. It’s ‘my way or the highway.’”

One reason for the poor communication and the growing disconnect is that there are too many “free agents” in the White House independently pursuing different agendas on the Hill, without oversight from — or sometimes even the knowledge of — the Office of Legislative Affairs, one former aide said.

The office serves as the liaison between the White House and Congress, helps to develop strategy to promote the president’s legislative agenda and acts as a conduit through which members of Congress can deal directly with the White House.

“They have got to rein in the free agents, and let people know there’s a chain of command,” said a second former top Bush aide.

“We can’t have people calling congressmen and telling them one thing and someone else telling them something different. There are people calling members of Congress, dealing with members on a lot of issues, without approval from senior staff,” that aide said.

Neither former aide blamed the current head of the office, Candida Wolff, but both said the office needs to be completely restructured.

That process has begun with the resignation of Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and the ascension of his former deputy, Joshua B. Bolten, head of the Office of Management and Budget. Amid inside-the-Beltway clamor for Mr. Bush to shake up his staff, the former aides see the buttoned-down Mr. Bolten as a solution to many of the problems that have plagued the White House in recent months.

The day Mr. Bolten was appointed Mr. Card’s replacement, he immediately began a new outreach, calling 30 key lawmakers to ensure that each knew the White House has a renewed interest in listening.

“Josh has a unique opportunity to refocus on the organizational structure of the White House and reinstitute clear goals and objectives and parameters to best serve the president,” one aide said. “He was here in the first term, when the legislative system worked best, so he will know what needs to be done.”

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