Iraq war worries hang over GOP's Eastern Shore meeting

Bush speaks today to House members anxious over withdrawal plans

February 10, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Election-year worries about the war in Iraq are expected to greet President Bush when he meets with Republican members of Congress at a resort on the Eastern Shore today.

Bush's allies on Capitol Hill know that their re-election prospects could be linked to the public's views about the war, and they are looking to the president for reassurance that he will deliver on his recent hints that U.S. forces in Iraq will start withdrawing in advance of the U.S. election this fall.

War concerns "are certainly at the forefront" for House Republicans, said Rep. Jerry Lewis of California. He added that spending restraint is also a focus of the nearly 180 representatives who began their conference yesterday at the Hyatt resort in Cambridge.

Bush has responded to lawmakers' anxieties, Lewis said, by dispatching top aides to listen to their concerns and consult more closely with Congress. Bush himself will hold a private question-and-answer session with the House members after his luncheon speech.

"They have begun to shift gears and say maintaining a Republican majority is very important to the presidency, and they've begun to reach out," Lewis said. "It's a demonstration that [Bush] understands that keeping the House and the Senate is important. ... It's just very smart politics."

Still, some lawmakers said the war remains a politically sensitive topic for Republicans.

Bush has "exerted some good leadership" on Iraq, said Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, a Pennsylvania Republican. "We've got to stay with it, but it's tough, I know, for some members."

Bush campaigned hard for Republicans in the last mid-term election, in 2002, making national security a central theme. He and his senior political aides have signaled plans to do the same this year.

But some Republicans are already looking for ways to put distance between themselves and Bush on national security issues, fissures laid bare this week as members of the president's party criticized his warrantless wiretapping program and the administration's unwillingness to brief all but a handful of congressional leaders about it.

Republicans are looking to Bush for "credible evidence that Iraq is getting better," said John Samples, a specialist in the presidency at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Progress in the war would boost Bush's popularity, Samples added, and likely carry over into improving the public's satisfaction with the way things are going at home. National opinion surveys show that, by a roughly two-to-one margin, Americans think the country has gotten off on the wrong track, a danger sign for the party in power in an election year.

Republicans are "just trying to get through this [election] with the minimum harm done, rather than picking up maximum benefit. So if the president can make the case that the war is improving enough that voters will begin to feel it, he will help himself and his party," Samples said.

Republicans are looking for more clarity from Bush on "the circumstances under which our troops will come home," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland. "It's so far been rather generic, very nebulous, and I think that most members and most constituents would be happier if they had a more definitive description."

Bartlett, who is skipping the conference, called Iraq "the major focus of our people."

Keeping Republicans united could be a formidable challenge for Bush this year, as lawmakers calculate the costs and benefits of allying with a president whose popularity has continued to sag.

"Self-preservation is the most powerful political instinct, and to the extent that Republicans on [Capitol] Hill feel politically endangered, they will first and foremost look out for their own interests," said Michael Franc, a congressional specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

House leaders say they are ready to smooth over any rifts, starting with this week's event, which stretches into the weekend with sessions on the politically touchy topics of ethics and lobbying reform, as well as the budget.

"That's why we have retreats," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican. "We need to listen to what our members are saying."

Some Republicans are already breaking with Bush over his budget, which some moderates say makes ill-advised cuts in social programs, and many conservatives say is too lax on reining in spending.

Bush's budget might not be as austere as some conservatives wish, said Franc, but it contains hints that the president is willing to play a role - beyond simply campaigning - in helping his party craft their election-year message. By including $36 billion in Medicare cuts, Bush "sends signals that he's willing to play ball and touch some of these issues, and then Congress can take that and run with it," Franc added.

Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman, who is attending the conference, said the drive to curb spending would be a potent theme for rallying the party's voters.

julie.davis@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.

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