GOP harmony sounding off key

Republicans growing increasingly uneasy over president's domestic agenda

Posted: Sunday, March 02, 2003

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is used to dealing with political enemies. It's some of his friends who are giving him headaches these days.

As the president works to build international support for action against Iraq, he is losing support for his domestic agenda from some prominent Republicans in Congress and in state capitals. The strains follow a long period of GOP harmony, capped by November's elections that gave Republicans control of both the House and the Senate.

Along with their more vocal Democratic counterparts, Republican governors are quietly fuming over Bush's admonition last week not to look to Washington for help for their cash-strapped budgets.

In the Senate, at least a half-dozen Republi-cans have expressed reservations about Bush's tax-cut proposals. That spells big trouble, given the GOP's one-vote margin of control in the Senate.

Even Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, whose support was crucial for Bush's first round of tax cuts two years ago, has jumped ship. Greenspan, a Republican, appeared to go out of his way to criticize Bush's latest tax proposals, telling a congressional panel the cuts would aggravate deficits without providing much help to the economy.

Strains are even appearing within the Cabinet, a group not generally known for airing disagreements.

Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge have sparred over announcements about terror alert levels.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi wrote a pointed letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanding more data on potential health hazards to American troops from U.S. weapons. He later said he had not meant for the letter to be made public.

Administration hard-liners are suggesting privately that the deadlock over Iraq in the U.N. Security Council shows Bush may have erred in following Secretary of State Colin Powell's advice last summer to take his case against Iraq to the world body. Those in Powell's camp are contemptuous of comments by Rumsfeld on ''old Europe'' and his lumping of Germany with Libya and Cuba as countries he said would not help the United States in the event of war in Iraq.

''For the last three months, it's been all Iraq, all the time. And continuing to spin the plates is getting difficult for the entire team,'' said Scott Reed, an outside GOP consultant. ''When Iraq is a success, everything else will fall back in line.''

Political analyst Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution disagrees, suggesting Bush's tax cut plan and deficit-spending proposals will remain troubling issues for Republicans even if the Iraqi crisis is resolved in short order.

Mann said some of Bush's character traits that annoy many Europeans and other allies have had a similar negative affect at home, even on some Republicans. ''The flip side of self-confidence is self-righteousness. And he's got them both,'' Mann said.

Governors of cash-strapped states -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- got a dose of Bush's bluntness at a White House meeting last week during the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association.

The president, a former Texas governor, told them not to look to Washington for more money to help pay for Medicaid, homeland security and Bush's ''No Child Left Behind'' school law.

''You know, we've got an issue with our own budget,'' he told them. ''Our budget is in deficit. It's because we went through a recession and we're at war.''

Some analysts trace part of Bush's problems to a failure to touch base in advance with key congressional Republicans, particularly on details of his tax plan, especially the proposed elimination of federal taxes on stock dividends and a radical overhaul and expansion of individual retirement and savings accounts.

That caught some important allies off guard, including Senate Finance Committee Chair Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the White House liaison with House Republicans.

Grassley expressed reservations over a dividend tax repeal now. He also opposed a part of Bush's Medicare proposal that would require older people to join managed care plans to obtain prescription drug coverage.

Bush's efforts to sell his $674 billion economic stimulus plan has been further hampered by virtue of having an entirely new economic team.

Glenn Hubbard, the chief architect of that plan, resigned on Wednesday -- earlier than expected -- as head of the Bush's Council of Economic Advisers to return his post as economics professor at Columbia University.

Meanwhile, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, whose criticism of Bush's tax policies got him fired late last year, continues to voice criticism from the sidelines.

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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