The White House is planning additional staff changes that could come as early as next week as part of a broader effort to repair relations with Congress and revive the Bush presidency, according to several Republicans familiar with the emerging strategy.
Joshua B. Bolten, who takes over April 15 as White House chief of staff, is developing a proposal to overhaul West Wing operations with the twin aims of bringing more voices into the policymaking process and avoiding staff breakdowns such as the slow response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Republicans inside and outside the White House said President Bush is under pressure to do more to reshuffle his staff than simply move Bolten over from the budget office to replace Andrew H. Card Jr. As he prepares to assume the top staff job, Bolten has focused heavily on rebuilding ties with Congress, telephoning 30 key lawmakers in the first 24 hours after his appointment. And Republicans said he may bring in a new ambassador to Capitol Hill, possibly former representative Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.).
Bolten is focused on "making sure there's clear lines of authority and responsibility on issues" and "making sure the president is provided with stimulating debate on the big issues," said a senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid upstaging Bolten. "He has a very open mind about looking outside the family."
Opening things up
That by itself could indicate a significant shift for a White House known for a tight -- critics say insular -- circle that often does not seem open to outsiders or their advice. While welcomed by Republicans, Bolten's promotion from director of the Office of Management and Budget did not bring in new blood, as congressional leaders have urged. "The White House has heard a loud and clear message from friends: They need bigger changes than the ones so far," said one GOP strategist.
But even if Bolten does enlist Washington veterans from outside the traditional Bush orbit, Republicans close to the process cautioned against expecting wholesale upheaval. "There's nothing that suggests there's going to be blood on the wall," said a Republican lobbyist with ties to the White House.
Most attention has centered on the administration's congressional liaison, economic and communications teams. The most prominent name discussed for possible replacement is Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who has often been rumored to be on the way out. Two Republican strategists said the White House decided even before Bolten's appointment to bring in a new Treasury secretary but has had trouble finding a high-profile candidate to take the job. Other Cabinet changes may be in the offing as well.
But those may wait until after Bolten has shaken up the White House staff. A colleague said Bolten is moving aggressively to have a plan in place by the time he officially takes over from Card. "He doesn't want to miss a beat," the colleague said.
Filling the gaps
For starters, Bolten needs to find a replacement for himself at OMB and for former domestic policy adviser Claude Allen, who resigned after being accused of defrauding retail stores. Other officials may leave for their own reasons as well. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin may be ready to move on, according to one strategist. White House communications director Nicolle Wallace's husband moved to New York for a new job this week, and colleagues assume she will join him at some point. Some officials at the deputy assistant level have been shopping résumés around town.
At the OMB, Deputy Director Joel Kaplan is the favorite of insiders, well liked by both career and political officials, but Bolten may want someone with more stature, according to several aides. Another deputy director, Clay Johnson, who followed Bush from Texas, has told friends he does not want the job. A dark horse mentioned by some Republicans is Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.
Reaching out to allies
To reach out to Congress, Bush had been advised to tap someone such as Paxon, former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.) or former senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.) for a more prestigious assignment such as senior adviser. It is unclear whether Candida Wolff, the current head of legislative affairs, would be reassigned. At least one top adviser is counseling the White House to pick a House Republican from a safe district to replace her.
Wolff is highly regarded internally but some lawmakers complain her leadership style is not hands-on enough and she has been undercut because so many top White House officials, including Bolten, Karl Rove and others, do their own negotiating on Capitol Hill.
White House aides have made clear Bush wants the changes to look like the logical result of Bolten's promotion -- not a shake-up in response to his critics.
But the staff changes come as the White House is considering how to pull Bush out of his political slump. At or near all-time lows in the polls and amid growing disillusionment over the Iraq war, Bush has never had less clout in Congress or faced so many questions about his leadership. As part of the effort to woo back disaffected allies, Bush this week met with 10 House Republicans in the White House residence for a what's-on-your-mind session before he left for Mexico.
Bush's options for turning things around, though, are limited, advisers say. The White House is trying to repackage the president by having him focus extensively on Iraq while taking more questions from the public, lawmakers and media to reverse growing public doubts about his trustworthiness. And aides said Bush has vowed to focus heavily on the 2006 elections, raising more money than ever for GOP candidates on the theory that victory in November would breathe new life into his presidency.