Iraq, Economy Roil GOP

House Republicans Assail Leadership, Bush

Posted September 12, 2003 at 6:19pm

Battered by public fears over Iraq and the economy and beset by falling polling numbers, House Republicans lashed out at their own leadership and President Bush during a tense, closed-door session Wednesday.

Led by GOP Reps. Walter Jones Jr. (N.C.), Anne Northup (Ky.), Nancy Johnson (Conn.) and Ray LaHood (Ill.), rank-and-file lawmakers complained about everything from high unemployment and unfair trading practices by China to the slow appropriations process and leadership’s failure to consult with them on the legislative agenda.

“We are not addressing real solutions,” insisted LaHood, who is pushing hard for passage of a massive five-year highway funding bill, on hold because of its steep price tag, as a way to jump-start the economy.

LaHood said additional tax cuts are not an economic recovery plan, especially for the hard-hit U.S. manufacturing sector, which has shed hundreds of thousands of jobs in the past two years. “That doesn’t sell. We’ve milked that cow already,” said the five-term lawmaker in an interview.

The Illinois Republican added that attacks on Bush’s economic record by the nine Democratic presidential contenders are starting to hit home with voters.

“Their criticism of [Bush] on Iraq is not resonating,” LaHood said. “Their criticism of him on the economy is certainly resonating.”

Many of these worries were echoed in a memo released by GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) during the meeting.

“More than any time this year, Americans are increasingly concerned about the economy, their job situation, and the latest developments in Iraq,” Pryce wrote. “Because of the concerns converging together in recent weeks, anxiety about the direction of the country has escalated.”

According to polling done for House Republicans by GOP pollster David Winston, a Roll Call contributor, only 37 percent of Americans feel the country is headed in the right direction, while 51 percent think it is headed in the wrong direction — part of a continuing downward trend over the past several months.

Things have gotten so bad for Republicans on the message front that Pryce huddled with White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) on Thursday to come up with an approach to push through the $87 billion Iraq supplemental funding request. The size of that request has stunned Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers, although they predict that the White House will get broad bipartisan support for the additional funding in the end.

“When you get bad news from more than one front, it has a tendency to make people nervous, anxious,” Pryce said. “From a communications standpoint, I don’t think we’re in the best place we’ve ever been.”

Pryce added that Members are “tired and worn down,” which plays a role in their displeasure. She also noted that Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) wasn’t at Wednesday’s conference, speculating that his absence allowed rank-and-file Members to be more frank in their criticism of the leadership.

The discord within the House GOP Conference mirrors similar concerns being raised by their Senate Republican counterparts, offering further proof that Bush’s Sept. 7 speech on Iraq and increased White House focus on the economy has yet to reverse a slide in the party’s fortunes.

“The mood is not as upbeat as it should be given what is really happening out there with the economy,” said a top Republican lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We’ve had a bad month, a bad six weeks.”

This lawmaker also believes that opponents of the Iraq invasion have gained the upper hand in their ongoing ideological struggle with the Bush administration and its allies.

“The intensity is all on their side right now,” said the Republican, who sees an “increasing polarization of the country” on Iraq, despite continuing strong poll numbers for Bush on the issue.

The White House has also suffered some surprising reverses on the Hill recently, including losing a vote last week in the Senate prohibiting the Labor Department from altering federal rules on overtime pay. Labor Department officials have proposed changing the regulations, but critics say the changes cause millions of workers to lose the opportunity to earn overtime pay. Six Republican moderates, a number of whom are up for re-election in 2004, voted with Senate Democrats to block the proposed changes, but the White House has threatened to veto the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill over the issue.

Both Members and House GOP staffers emphasize that House Republicans still strongly back Bush and the Hastert-DeLay team, although they are exasperated at what they see as a failure by the White House to alter the impression that the United States has become bogged down in a military quagmire in Iraq.

But word of the GOP infighting has emboldened Democrats, who have been focusing on the nation’s economic situation for months, even with Iraq dominating TV and newspaper coverage.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) said he’s not surprised Republicans are starting to privately voice their concerns about the economy. The outlook is worsening, he added, and the GOP is to blame.

“The reality is their stewardship is putting the country into deep debt,” Menendez said. “We’re in a spiral of continuing job loss and more fiscal demands on security at a time when we don’t have the resources because of tax cuts.”

Menendez, third in the Democratic leadership hierarchy, acknowledged that GOP dissent creates an opportunity for the minority party, which has put its election-year focus squarely on the economy.

“We’ve been driving this before it became popular with the press and the public,” he said. “We’ve been the Paul Reveres saying this is coming.”

But House GOP leaders such as Pryce and Rep. Rob Portman (Ohio), chairman of the Republican leadership, are standing firmly with Bush and urging their colleagues to be patient as well.

“I think we have an exciting agenda that addresses the public’s concerns, especially on the jobs front,” said Portman, who added that GOP Congressional leaders must also emphasize “the great progress we have made over the last two years in fighting terrorism.”

Bush will also renew his recent offensive on domestic issues. The president is expected to meet with conferees on the Medicare and energy bills this week and urge them to complete work on those proposals soon, according to GOP sources.

Erin Billings contributed to this report.