WASHINGTON -- Several Democratic governors provoked President Bush into an angry exchange yesterday by unleashing a surprise attack on his economic growth proposals during a White House meeting at which he sought their help in lobbying the plan through Congress.
In the latest sign of a White House promotional campaign gone awry, Mr. Bush was suddenly confronted on his home turf with charges that his plan was full of gimmicks and would add to the nation's "sewer of debt." He quickly fired back with a challenge to the governors to put themselves on the record for a tax increase and name what military bases they would close.
Aides rushed to turn off microphones broadcasting the scene into the White House pressroom even as the governors were insisting that a small pool of reporters not be hustled out of the East Room where the exchange was under way.
Administration officials later bragged that Mr. Bush had gotten the best of the confrontation, but it was another clear setback in the president's crusade to portray his election-year fiscal package as the best answer to the voters' economic woes.
Mr. Bush's meeting yesterday with members of the National Governors Association was intended to further the campaign the president began with his State of the Union address last week, when he challenged the Democratic-controlled Congress to act quickly on his economic recovery program. His opening remarks to the group were made with reporters in the room. They were to be followed by a private question-and-answer session with the governors.
But Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a Democrat who is taking over as chairman of the non-partisan association, demanded that reporters be allowed to stay while he made clear the group was not endorsing the president's package.
"We're concerned about the budget that you've laid out. We're concerned that it does not provide the revenue to do what is anticipated there, and we are concerned that some of those [costs] may end up on our backs," Mr. Romer said. He charged that the budget was balanced with two accounting "gimmicks" worth $40 billion in income that may fall short.
President Bush responded testily: "Are you all advocating . . . a tax increase now at the federal level?"
Mr. Romer said he thought deeper cuts should be made in defense spending than the $50 billion over five years that Mr. Bush proposed.
"So what bases do you want to close, what areas do you want to shut down, what weapons systems do you want to knock off right now?" the president fired back in a voice full of irritation at the challenge. "Or do you want to lay off the people?"
Gov. George Sinner of North Dakota, another Democrat, later told Mr. Bush that he would be willing to support a tax increase.
"If we continue into this sewer of debt, our children and the families that are suffering today, that's nothing compared to what these families of tomorrow will suffer," Mr. Sinner said. "I for one will stand and say, 'Yes, I think we should raise [taxes].' " Democratic Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont complained that Mr. Bush proposed to cut $500 million from a $1.5 billion program on which the elderly poor in northern states depend to get heating fuel. The sudden attack caught White House image-makers by surprise and they initially sought to squelch a live broadcast of the exchange. But they later put out a transcript and claimed victory for Mr. Bush.
"The president put Romer down masterfully," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "He was feisty."
Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who also attended yesterday's session, agreed with that interpretation.
"I think the Democrats made a mistake trying to embarrass him in the White House," Governor Schaefer said. "He told them, 'At least I have a plan. What have you got?' They got caught."
But three recent polls indicate most Americans are not yet convinced Mr. Bush has a workable plan that would benefit them. His approval rating in a Time magazine/Cable News Network poll released over the weekend suggested his approval rating of 44 percent had not been boosted by the State of the Union and budget proposals.