WASHINGTON -- A senior White House official said yesterday that the Republican strategy in the budget fight "all along" was deliberately to "create congressional vulnerability" on the issue, even if that might weaken GOP incumbents.
Speaking to reporters on the condition that he not be named, the official said that the administration's strategy on domestic issues has been to persuade Americans that Congress was not functioning well and ought to be replaced.
And although that "makes it tough on Republican incumbents," the official said, "this is a long-term battle."
The official's remarks were considered certain to aggravate the frictions between the White House and congressional Republicans, who split with President Bush over the tax issue earlier this month and have been increasingly cool to him since.
Partly in response to the president's handling of the budget crisis, recent polls show Republicans plummeting in races across the nation. A near-panic has engulfed GOP strategists, several of whom have urged candidates to distance themselves from Mr. Bush.
Yesterday, the White House retaliated against one strategist, Edward J. Rollins, director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, publicly denouncing him and privately calling for his ouster.
"There is a strong anti-incumbent mood in the country," the official said. "We think that is a strong plus for the Republicans."
Mr. Rollins, in a memo, had advised GOP candidates that they should "not hesitate to oppose either the president" or his policies.
"Obviously, we were not happy with his comments," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "That is probably the understatement of the decade."
Later, reporters asked the president if he wanted Mr. Rollins fired. Mr. Bush refused to answer but appeared to nod "yes."
But the chairman of the campaign committee, Representative Guy Vander Jagt, R-Mich., told reporters later that no action would be taken against Mr. Rollins, at least for now. "We have an election to win," Mr. Vander Jagt said.
Mr. Bush's nod came at a televised photo opportunity with congressional Republican leaders that the White House had scheduled to try to portray an image of GOP unity. "We're coming together," Mr. Bush said.
The events of the day, however, seemed to send the opposite message, underlining the bitterness between the White House and congressional Republicans.
Not surprisingly, Republican members of Congress reacted negatively to the senior official's suggestion that their losses might be part of a long-term benefit for the party.
"People have feelings, and they have become very bitter about those things when they happen," said Representative Silvio O. Conte, R-Mass.
Mr. Bush, for his part, gave a White House tour to actress Bo Derek, went jogging and appeared briefly with the Republican leaders.