Republicans anxious about Bush's setbacks

President stages pep rally for party's lawmakers to reassure them

May 21, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As members of Congress head home today to face their constituents over the 10-day Memorial Day recess, many Republicans leave anxious about the war in Iraq, disheartened by President Bush's sagging approval ratings and worried that dissent within their party is undercutting their message at a crucial time.

With the elections 5 1/2 months away, polls show that gasoline prices have become a rising concern of voters and that the war has left many skeptical of President Bush's policy in Iraq. Doubts are growing about the president's overall leadership, surveys show.

At the same time, infighting has broken out in Republican ranks, especially between the House and Senate. Republican leaders are irritated that some of their own are breaking ranks to oppose the party's stance on the budget and to criticize the administration's handling of the Iraq prison abuse scandal at a vulnerable time for Bush.

Some Republicans say they are fearful not only that Bush's stock is falling, but also that their party's ideas are getting lost in a tangle of administration setbacks.

"The mood is apprehensive," said Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut. "Right now, you don't control oil prices and you don't control what terrorists do, so there is anxiety and there's a sense that this needs to turn around."

"I don't think the president has had a few good consecutive days since last year," Shays added.

Republicans tried to project a positive and unified face yesterday as Bush visited Capitol Hill to stage a closed-door pep rally with House and Senate Republicans. The president gave a roughly 40-minute speech, about half of which he spent outlining his vision for the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq on June 30. But he took no questions from either lawmakers or reporters.

Visit to reassure

"He talked about `time to take the training wheels off,'" said Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio. "The Iraqi people have been in training, and now it's time for them to take the bike and go forward."

The rare visit amounted to an effort by Bush to reassure nervous and fractious Republicans that, contrary to the Democratic criticism that he has botched the situation in Iraq, he has a solid long-term plan for the postwar.

"This has been a rough couple of months for the president, particularly on the issues of Iraq, and I think he was here to remind folks that we do have a policy and this policy is going to be tough," said Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

At the same time, Bush cautioned lawmakers that things "are very likely to get worse before they get better," Santorum said.

Republicans described a pep talk in which Bush praised the lawmakers for their accomplishments - on domestic issues like education and health care, and on national security - and defended his own record.

"We should not be ashamed," said Rep. John E. Sweeney of New York. He said Republicans should be "proud of what we've accomplished."

Some Republicans acknowledged that they welcomed Bush's encouragement as they braced for tough questions from voters about the mounting violence in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and uncertainty about what will happen when the United States transfers sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 30.

"There's a deep sense of apprehension about the conflict in Iraq from almost everybody," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican. "Some Republicans are concerned about the election because of the poll numbers and because of the prisoner issue, and it was important for the president to earnestly relay his feelings about what he wants to accomplish."

Partisan acrimony

Bush's visit came as Democrats stepped up their attacks on his policies in Iraq, with Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, declaring to reporters that "the emperor has no clothes."

Pelosi, who was quoted in her hometown San Francisco Chronicle yesterday as saying that Bush is "incompetent," stood by that statement.

"The president's leadership in the actions taken in Iraq demonstrate an incompetence in terms of knowledge, judgment and experience," Pelosi said yesterday. "When you take an action, when you decide to go to war, you have to know what the consequences of your actions are."

Republicans leaders rushed to Bush's defense, with House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois saying Pelosi's words "cross the line."

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas demanded an apology and charged that Pelosi "apparently is so caught up in partisan hatred for President Bush that her words are putting American lives at risk."

The partisan acrimony comes at a difficult time for Republicans, some of whom have expressed exasperation that members of their own party - especially moderates and those in the Senate - are challenging Bush's message at a time when his poll numbers are hitting record lows.

Republican infighting

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