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Bush Turns to House for Help

The nomination of California Rep. Christopher Cox (R) to be the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission last week brought the number of House Republicans tapped to serve in the Bush administration in the past nine months to three, a dramatic reversal from the president’s first term.

If confirmed by the Senate — as seems likely — Cox will join former Ohio Rep. Rob Portman and former Florida Rep. Porter Goss in the administration. Goss is the Central Intelligence Agency director; Portman was confirmed as the United States trade representative in April.

Through the first three and a half years of Bush’s term, he named just one sitting House Member, then Ohio Democratic Rep. Tony Hall, to the executive branch. Hall serves as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations’ food and agriculture programs.

Cox was nominated for a federal judgeship by Bush in 2001 but saw his chances of confirmation dashed when Democrats took control of the Senate in May of that year.

White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said nothing should be read into the recent spate of House Members moving to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“The President nominates individuals who he feels would be the best person to serve in that position,” Healy said.

Other knowledgeable sources noted, however, that the run on Members was due to an increased Republican majority and a desire to bring in individuals who could work well in Congress and also sell Bush’s policy priorities to the public. Having figures in the Administration who are known entities in Congress could be particularly important as concerns grow that Republican Members may be more willing to stray from the agenda of a president who will not face voters again.

“There was a lot of talent that the Administration wanted to draw from,” said one high-level Republican source familiar with the selection process. “But, there was a lot on the President’s agenda the first few years and a smaller Republican majority.”

When Bush won the White House in 2000, he came to Washington with Republicans holding a narrow 222-213 margin in the House and 50-50 split in the Senate.

Faced with the prospect of losing control of one or both chambers in the 2002 election, the White House steered away from disrupting the competitive balance by selecting a Member for an executive branch opening.

That first midterm election brought a bit more breathing room as Republicans increased their majorities in the House and Senate. Even so, Republicans controlled just 51 seats in the Senate and 229 seats in the House.

The wider-than-expected pickups in 2004 gave the Administration more leverage to snatch up qualified Members that White House officials had had their eye on for several years.

“Cox and Portman have been considered for other things for a while,” said a House Republican leadership aide. “It was a matter of time before they left.”

Aside from the federal judgeship, Cox’s name had also been floated as a potential CIA director, U.N. ambassador and Supreme Court justice, among others.

Portman, who made no secret of his desire to leave Congress, had been mentioned as a potential White House chief of staff before being selected a trade representative. He is likely to be a key figure in trying to sway Congress to adopt the Central American Free Trade Agreement this summer.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) dismissed questions about the propriety of the White House’s newfound willingness to choose Members for open positions.

“It is the President’s prerogative to pursue anyone he wants for his Administration,” said Reynolds. “I appreciate the courtesy that [the White House] keeps us informed of what they’re thinking.”

Sources familiar with Cox’s selection say the White House informed Congressional leaders the night before it was publicly announced.

The likely reason for the lack of animosity between the legislative and executive branches regarding the recent appointments is the overwhelming Republican nature of the three seats that Goss, Portman and Cox left behind.

“The White House has a politically astute operation,” said one informed Republican strategist. “They know Republicans are going to win those seats.”

Goss’ 14th district gave Bush 62 percent of the vote in 2004; freshman Rep. Connie Mack IV (R) won the seat with 68 percent on Election Day.

The special election primary for Portman’s 2nd district seat will be held June 14 with 12 Republicans vying for the nomination. The GOP primary winner will have a huge edge in the Aug. 2 general election; Bush took 64 percent in the 2nd in 2004.

Much of the same story holds in Cox’s southern California 48th district. It is the 11th strongest Republican seat in the state, judged by Bush’s 2004 performance numbers, and Democrats are not likely to seriously compete if Cox is approved by the Senate.

That confirmation seemed likely at press time although several liberal groups like the Center for American Progress voiced opposition to the choice of Cox late last week.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who pledged her opposition to Cox’s nomination to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2001, adopted a wait-and-see approach Friday.

“I look forward to his hearing because I want to make sure that in this position he will make a commitment to stand up for shareholders and be tough on corporate fraud and malfeasance,” Boxer said in a statement. “I look forward to introducing him to the Committee when his hearing is scheduled.”

A less obvious but no less important reason for Bush’s selection of House Members to administration posts is to help facilitate the working relationship between the two branches and grease the wheels for the president’s policy priorities.

Members “have those relationships and an understanding of where to push and where not to push,” explained one high-level Republican source.

In recent weeks tension has increased between the two branches as the House passed a bill loosening restrictions on stem-cell research — in direct contradiction to Bush’s stated position on the issue — and the Senate agreed to a compromise that robs several of the president’s judicial nominees of up or down votes.

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