Congressional Republicans from across the ideological spectrum yesterday rejected the White House's open-wallet approach to rebuilding the Gulf Coast, a sign that the lockstep GOP discipline that George W. Bush has enjoyed for most of his presidency is eroding on Capitol Hill.
Trying to allay mounting concerns, White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten met with Republican senators for an hour after their regular Tuesday lunch. Senators emerged to say they were annoyed by the lack of concrete ideas for paying the Hurricane Katrina bill.
"Very entertaining," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said sarcastically as he left the session. "I haven't heard any specifics from the administration."
"At least give us some idea" of how to cover the cost, said Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who is facing reelection in 2006. "We owe that to the American taxpayer."
The pushback on Katrina aid, which the White House is also confronting among House Republicans, represents the loudest and most widespread dissent Bush has faced from his own party since it took full control of Congress in 2002. As polls show the president's approval numbers falling, there is growing concern among lawmakers that GOP margins in Congress could shrink next year, and even rank-and-file Republicans are complaining that Bush is shirking the difficult budget decisions that must accompany the rebuilding bonanza.
Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) said he and other fiscal conservatives are feeling "genuine concern [which] could easily turn into frustration and anger."
Congressional Republicans are not arguing with Bush's pledge that the federal government will lead the Louisiana and Mississippi recovery. But they are insisting that the massive cost — as much as $200 billion — be paid for. Conservatives are calling for spending cuts to existing programs, a few GOP moderates are entertaining the possibility of a tax increase, and many in the middle want to freeze Bush tax cuts that have yet to take effect.
The resistance suggests that Bush's second term could turn out far rockier and more contentious than his first. One indicator many Republicans are watching to gauge whether Bush is becoming a liability for the party is in Pennsylvania, where Rick Santorum, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, is trailing state treasurer Bob Casey Jr. by double digits.
"My caucus would do anything for Senator Santorum," Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.) said of his colleague. Chafee, who himself faces a tough reelection battle next year, predicted Republicans will increasingly be faced with the choice of propping up Bush or protecting their own. "I think they're going to collide," Chafee said of the two options.
Asked whether Bush's problems were a factor in his slump, Santorum responded, "That may be."
The White House is aware of the growing political problem and has moved on several fronts to pacify Republicans — with decidedly uneven results. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, in a speech yesterday, said the White House will be forced to put several plans on the "back burner," including changes to the estate tax and permanently extending first-term tax cuts. "It's taken over the national agenda, and I think it will for a while," he said.
This prompted protests from one of the White House's closest allies, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who said waiting on taxes was unacceptable. But White House officials said Snow was accurately reflecting Bush's intentions.
Amid this friction, top White House officials told Republicans the relief and recovery package could come in much lower than widely quoted projections of $200 billion. Some House GOP leaders also are urging their colleagues to cool off, reminding them that the true cost of the relief effort is not yet known.
"There are tough choices that are going to have to be made," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "We're going to have to cut unnecessary spending elsewhere in the budget to offset some of the cost with Katrina."
House conservatives are particularly riled. Unhappy about spending growth during Bush's first term, they thought they had slowed the pace when Congress passed a relatively austere fiscal 2006 budget this spring.
A group of these conservatives, including Feeney, plans today to present to the White House a proposal to cover the cost of the entire Katrina relief and reconstruction package. Dubbed "Operation Offset," it will include repealing many of the pork-barrel projects stuffed into the $286 billion highway bill that Bush signed into law a few weeks before Katrina struck.
McCain called on Bush to undo the Medicare prescription drug law, while a number of lawmakers said the costly benefit should at least be postponed from its January starting date. Republicans are pressing ahead with the Medicare changes, even as the White House spreads the word it is opposed to such a move.
In one of the most unexpected proposals to cover the reconstruction costs, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) raised the possibility of raising taxes. Other Republicans say that while a tax increase is unlikely, Bush tax cuts that are scheduled to take effect in coming years may be in serious jeopardy.
Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) said he will even comb through the Pentagon budget for cost savings. "Many of us think that we need to step back and look at what we're doing and reevaluate it," Voinovich said. But he added that "someone has to look at the big picture" — and that someone should be the president. "The vision is missing," Voinovich said.
A new Gallup poll shows a majority of Americans believe the mission in Iraq should be cut to cover the recovery costs, while only a small fraction support slashing other domestic programs, raising taxes or increasing the deficit to finance it. New Orleans also has emerged as the chief target of angst. "The question is do we really want to flood New Orleans with money," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).
Kingston said he has detected a building hostility toward New Orleans among his constituents, based on reports that local officials mismanaged the crisis, along with federal dollars that had previously flowed the region's way. "What we are hearing from constituents is: 'Wait a minute, slow down on this,' " Kingston said.
Deficits have rarely emerged as a potent political issue, with the exception of Ross Perot's independent bid for the presidency in 1992, but some worried Republicans believe the deficit may soon reach an untenable level, especially if Democrats can link it to Republican mismanagement.
"I don't know that anyone ever lost a race because of the deficit, but there is concern" that it could happen this time around, said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "You can't just keep piling up debt."