Republicans Move Away from Bush on Key Issues

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The dispute over a Dubai-owned company that is poised to run operations at key U.S. ports is only the latest issue in which Republicans have broken with President Bush.

SCOTT SIMON host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Coming up: what in the world is the World Baseball Classic? But first, President Bush and Congressional Republicans are at odds again. House and Senate Republicans are rebelling against the administration's plan to allow an Arab-owned company to manage terminals at some U.S. ports. This is just the latest issue where Mr. Bush and his party in Congress have seemed to have gone their separate ways.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

Here's what it's come to at the White House. This weak, the press secretary Scott McClellan had to point out to reporters that the President got a positive reception from a group of Republican members of Congress at a private retreat on the subject of terrorism.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): At the end of those remarks, he received a standing ovation, so I think there is strong united support for the policies that we are putting in place and that we are pursuing to make America more prosperous and to make America safer.

LIASSON: This week the President threatened to cast what could be his very first veto after the Republican Speaker of the House and the Republican Majority Leader of the Senate said they would support legislation to delay the Dubai ports deal. It's unusual that the Republican Congress would oppose the President on a national security matter, until now the GOP's strongest political issue, but Republicans have also broken with the President on NSA wiretapping, on the President's plan to partially privatize Social Security, on this year's budget, on the President's proposal for an entitlement reform commission and on the nomination of Harriet Myers to the Supreme Court.

Rich Bond, a former Republican Party chair and top White House official, has a theory about why this is happening in the second term.

Mr. RICH BOND (Former Republican Party Chair and White House Official): I think the difference is now that the first Bush White House was a magnificent political machine. It was calibrated and fine tuned every hour of the day, and the second Bush White House has not been as finely tuned and finely calibrated because they were not in a re-election mode.

LIASSON: Many Republicans have been complaining that the White House has developed a tin ear for political controversy. Bond points to the communications lapse in the Vice President's shooting incident, the lack of Congressional consultation in the Dubai ports deal and the fact that the President didn't know about the deal until after it was approved.

Mr. BOND: Those things would have been largely avoided if we were in a presidential reelection campaign, because an entirely different lens is put on decision making by the White House and by the Cabinet.

LIASSON: Of course, no second term president runs for election, but Bond says in most second term White Houses, there is someone running: the Vice President.

Mr. BOND: From the very beginning, Vice President Cheney promised not to seek the presidency. This is a historical anomaly. When you have a vice president seeking the presidency, it gives extra punch to the presidency and it instills discipline in the troops, and that discipline is now no longer there, and it's a great big free for all.

LIASSON: Another seasoned Republican strategist has a different view. Former Congressman Vin Weber advises both the White House and Congressional Republicans. He thinks the tensions are due to declining approval ratings for the President and the Congress.

Mr. VIN WEBER (Republican Strategist): I do not think that this White House is operating qualitatively differently than it did the first term, but it was a much different political environment. The country was behind him and so any mistakes that were made seemed to be covered up. Now, the Republican Party as a whole, not just the Administration, the Republican Party as a whole is operating in a much, much more difficult political environment, and every mistake is amplified.

LIASSON: And Weber thinks it's dangerous for Congressional Republicans to break with the President so openly.

Mr. WEBER: That's heightening this dynamic that causes members of the President's party on Capitol Hill to mistakenly believe that their best road to political survival is to separate themselves from the President. I say mistakenly because there's really no evidence that that will do anything other than further discourage and demoralize their own base voters. But having been through a couple of tough elections when I was in the House in the 1980s, I know that that is the reaction of the party of the President.

LIASSON: The White House is working hard to get its Republican troops back in line, but there are powerful forces pulling them in the opposite direction.

Mara Liasson, NPR News Washington.

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