Democrats try to throw Bush off-balance

Amid setbacks for White House, party is intensifying attacks

many Republicans dismiss the efforts


WASHINGTON -- When Democrats forced the Senate into a closed session this week to discuss whether President Bush twisted intelligence to justify the Iraq war, it was more than a one-time assault on the Republican-controlled Congress.

The move was part of a broader Democratic effort to keep Bush and his allies off-balance and stall the administration's agenda. Democrats are sharpening their attacks on such issues as the war in Iraq and spending cuts, hoping to gain traction on issues that might help them defeat Republicans in next year's elections.

Bush and his team "have the power of the bully pulpit, but when you have a losing hand, it's sometimes difficult to change the subject as easily as you may hope," said Jim Manley, a Senate Democratic spokesman. Republicans "have given the Democrats the opportunity to tell the American people what we stand for."

The White House is pushing back with a campaign to win by the end of the year some high-profile victories on Bush's priorities - including trimming the budget deficit, enacting large tax cuts and confirming Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. - to show the president's strength at a time when his influence is in question.

That, Republican strategists say, will be enough to regain the momentum Bush has lost this fall, after the indictment of senior White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., the collapse of Harriet E. Miers' nomination for the Supreme Court, the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina and mounting public concerns about the war in Iraq.

But there are signs that Republicans might not be willing or able to deliver Bush the victories he needs to recover.

Republicans are defying Bush's call for the Senate to confirm Alito by the end of the year. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Judiciary Committee chairman, announced yesterday that his panel won't hold hearings on the nomination until early January, saying Bush's timetable was not "practical or realistic."

Bush's deficit-reduction plan - part of his push to show fiscal discipline as some conservatives attack him for profligate spending - is in trouble in the House, where moderate Republicans are balking at deep cuts to social programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.

The best way for Bush to get past his current troubles, White House aides say, is for him to keep "doing the people's business."

"We've got some pressing challenges," said Trent Duffy, a spokesman, including implementing a pandemic flu preparedness plan, promoting the "booming" economy, rebuilding the Gulf Coast and enacting the budget. "The president's just going to stay focused."

It's a standard strategy for Bush, who has been adept at keeping momentum behind his agenda by promoting his accomplishments and laying out broad goals for what he wants to do next.

But with Bush's approval ratings sinking - an Associated Press poll conducted this week showed 37 percent supporting him, a 14-point drop from December - and his presidency buffeted by bad news, the approach may no longer work for him, some analysts said.

"The story of Bush's success has really been ... you've got to keep winning, and it's got to be an unbroken series of victories. What's happened is the momentum has been broken," said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.

"They're trying their best to pick up that thread again with the success of a Supreme Court nominee," Baker said, "so it's important for the Democrats to keep up the drumbeat that this administration has sprung leaks all over the place and is seriously in danger of sinking."

The push could be a risky one for Democrats, who have struggled to overcome Republican criticism that they are obstructionists without a positive agenda.

But Democrats believe they have a unique chance to challenge Bush and sow doubts about Republicans. They are using the Libby indictment - which involves allegations of efforts to cover up the White House's role in unmasking a covert CIA officer whose husband questioned Bush's prewar claims - as an opening to blast the president's justification for the war and to paint his White House as ethically challenged.

"It's clear to me that the administration has learned nothing from its mistakes. Instead, it continues to hunker down and stay the course," Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said yesterday. Reid unveiled a letter that Democrats sent to Vice President Dick Cheney demanding that he make changes to his staff after the departure of Libby, his top aide.

Across the Capitol, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, tried unsuccessfully to launch an inquiry into prewar intelligence as a group of senior Democrats called on Cheney to testify before Congress about his role in the CIA leak case.

Many Republican strategists dismiss the moves as desperation on the part of Democrats who were disappointed that Karl Rove, one of Bush's most influential aides, has escaped indictment in the leak investigation.

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