Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Tensions between Republican lawmakers and the White House have reached an all-time high, say Republicans on Capitol Hill.

President Bush’s sagging poll numbers, the administration’s handling of the Dubai port deal and lingering bad memories of Harriet Miers’ failed Supreme Court nomination have left a broad spectrum of Republicans on Capitol Hill with little good will toward the White House.

“I was offended,” Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said of Mr. Bush’s threat last week to veto legislation aimed at stopping the transfer of port operations to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates. He said Mr. Bush “threatened me before I even knew the details of what was involved or whether I was going to vote for the bill or not.”

Mr. Lott said his immediate reaction was: “OK, big boy, I’ll just vote to override your veto.”

He called the White House, he said, to advise administration officials that they’d run afoul of some of their strongest allies in Congress.

“Don’t threaten me like that again,” said the former majority leader, recounting the conversation with an official he declined to name. “It doesn’t make a difference if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Don’t put your fist in my face. Where I’m from, we’re willing to fight back.”

In both the House and Senate, Republicans say they’ve never seen relations with the Bush administration more strained.

“This has been a tipping point for the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill,” said one House Republican staffer. “No longer will Republicans simply fall into line on major issues when they disagree with the president.”

A senior Republican leadership aide added that the administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina didn’t help matters.

“This episode shows that they didn’t learn anything from the Katrina and Harriet Miers flare-ups,” the staffer said. “There needs to be a sharper political acumen applied to their communication efforts, and someone has to start finding the backbone to stand up among senior staff and say, ‘Hey, there’s a problem looming here’ before everything hits the fan.”

In the case of Miss Miers, Mr. Bush nominated the White House counsel last year to replace Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Conservatives, who had waited for more than a decade to replace Justice O’Connor with a more reliably conservative jurist, were outraged and accused the president of “cronyism.” Only after weeks of criticism did Mr. Bush finally withdraw the nomination and appoint Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr, who was confirmed.

The more recent dust-up over the Dubai ports deal comes as Mr. Bush’s poll ratings have sagged to an all-time low. According to a CBS poll, released Monday, of 1,018 adults, Mr. Bush’s job-approval rating has fallen to 34 percent. However, the poll came under criticism from conservatives.

Still, these numbers create a whole host of other problems for Republicans in Congress who, unlike Mr. Bush, still face future elections.

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, yesterday said the president’s poll slump “makes things more difficult.”

Mr. Bush’s insistence on preserving the ports deal — which polls show is overwhelmingly unpopular among voters — has given Democrats an issue to use to undermine the Republicans’ strong credentials on national security.

“I talked to my little brother today, in Amargosa Valley, Nevada,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told reporters yesterday. “He’s not a political person. He said to me, ‘What in the hell is going on? We’re going to have a foreign country controlling our ports?’ … People feel this way. This is the wrong direction for this country to go.”

Even Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who is possibly the administration’s most ardent supporter on Capitol Hill, yesterday criticized the White House’s handling of the matter.

“If the administration had not surprised Congress with this news … you wouldn’t see the kind of reaction we have now,” Mr. Cornyn said.

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