GOP’s Season of Discontent

It’s hard to tell which is more irritating for conservatives less than a year after they savored Republican election triumphs of 2004: President Bush’s latest pick for the Supreme Court or his high-dollar pledge for recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Either way, the double dose of discontent might be easier for the administration and Republican-controlled Congress to manage if their list of problems stopped there.

It doesn’t, though. Not with bad poll ratings for Bush, a war president with 39 percent approval in the latest AP-Ipsos poll, and enthusiasm waning among evangelical voters, Republican men and southerners.

Not with the indictments of Texas Rep. Tom DeLay that forced him to step aside as House majority leader, at least for the time being. And not with the insider trading investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

“The Democrats say we should be worried. But I am not,” Rep. Tom Reynolds, head of the House GOP campaign committee, wrote fellow Republicans as they left the Capitol for a weeklong break.

Thirteen months before the 2006 midterm elections, the New York lawmaker added that the same polling that shows poor support for Congress gives high marks to individual incumbents.

For the White House, “the work of our government goes on, and I’m looking forward to working with members of Congress to meet our obligations and responsibilities,” Bush said as he campaigned doggedly for White House counsel Harriet Miers’ confirmation to the high court and enactment of the rest of a retooled agenda.

Defiant in public, DeLay added a dose of contrition in a recent closed-door meeting of the rank and file. He went after Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle, yet also apologized to fellow Republicans for any political difficulty his case was causing them, according to participants in the session.

Determined to preserve his claim on his leadership title, DeLay urged others to shelve their own ambitions and concentrate on a year-end agenda of tighter federal spending and immigration legislation. The Republicans who described his remarks did so on condition of anonymity, noting that the private nature of the meeting.

Frist speaks as seldom as possible in public about his own troubles, which shadow his presidential hopes as much as GOP congressional fortunes.

The Tennessee Republican says he is innocent of relying on insider information to sell stock in HCA Inc., a health care company founded by his father. He has pledged to cooperate with investigators.

Frist greeted Miers warmly as she began making courtesy calls on senators who will decide whether she joins newly confirmed Chief Justice John Roberts on the court.

But several Republicans withheld endorsements until hearing her answer questions at confirmation hearings.

“We’re left gathering shreds of evidence in trying to determine how the candidate would vote on the key issues of the day,” said Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, an opponent of abortion and a potential 2008 presidential candidate.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who praised Miers after meeting with her, said, “It’s the Souter factor.” He referred to Justice David Souter, whom Bush’s father nominated and promoted as a conservative, but who has since helped preserve abortion rights.

“I think conservatives do not have confidence she has a well-formed judicial philosophy, and they are afraid she might drift and be a part of the activist group like Justice Souter has,” Sessions added.

Conservative critics outside the Senate said the 60-year-old Miers was a Bush crony who was unqualified for the appointment, complaints that contrasted with the noncommittal but polite reception from Democrats.

In purely political terms, several Republican strategists expressed disappointment that Bush had not selected a nominee who would rally the party’s core supporters and trigger a battle against Senate Democrats and the abortion rights groups aligned with them. These strategists spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they did not want to detract from Miers’ confirmation effort.

Gary Bauer, head of the conservative American Values Coalition, made the point emphatically on “Fox News Sunday.” If Bush had named any of several prominent conservative jurists, Democrats “would have gone nuts. Many of us say, `So what. Let’s have that debate about these value issues,'” he said.

Still, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, second-ranking in the Republican leadership, predicted on CNN’s “Late Edition” that all 55 GOP senators will vote to confirm her.

Miers needs to gain approval only in the Senate, concern about federal spending on hurricane relief and recovery spread across both houses of the GOP-controlled Congress.

Several GOP officials reported frustration that Bush had not called earlier for cuts to offset some of the new spending, and has yet to propose specific reductions.

Prodded by conservatives, the House Republican leadership announced plans to seek at least $50 billion in savings over the next five years, compared with $35 billion in last spring’s budget.

“Conservatives are encouraged but not yet satisfied,” said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, the head of the Republican Study Committee, adding that satisfaction would come when the legislation is enacted.

“It is our sense that the American people want Congress to do something … to pay for Katrina, and anything less than that will be a disappointment to millions of Americans.”

Passage of such legislation through the Senate could prove difficult. Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., said approval by the House would be enough to reassure conservative voters in his and other districts around the country.

“Even before Katrina came along, we were set to do some pretty substantial” spending reductions, he said.


David Espo is chief congressional correspondent for The Associated Press.

© 2005 The Associated Press