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Bush’s Grip on GOP in Peril?

President Bush’s command over the Republican Congress is showing signs of weakening as a result of the growing unease over the U.S. mission in Iraq, the lack of a definitive plan to overhaul the nation’s Social Security system and rising energy costs.

Complicating matters for Bush is the devastation wrought on the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina, and the subsequent criticism from some local officials of the federal government’s alleged failure to respond quickly enough with relief aide.

Just four weeks ago, Bush was riding high after winning a series of legislative victories ranging from passage of the controversial Central American Free Trade Agreement to approval of long-stalled energy and transportation measures. As they left for the August recess, Republicans hoped this momentum would boost their chances of muscling Bush’s top domestic issue — restructuring the Social Security system — through the Congress before the year’s end.

Now, the White House must work to shore up support among Republican Members even as it tries to advance Bush’s goal on Social Security, said Senators, senior aides and GOP strategists, all of whom would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

“This is the perfect storm for the president,” said a Senate GOP leadership aide. “We have rising gas prices, patience running thin with the war in Iraq and now Katrina. Coupled with lame-duck status, it is an uphill battle for him.”

Evidence of a growing concern among Republicans about Bush’s handling of Iraq spilled into public last month when Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) bluntly asserted that the U.S. is “not winning.”

“We should start figuring out how we get out of there,” Hagel said on the Aug. 21 broadcast of ABC’s “This Week.” “But with this understanding: We cannot leave a vacuum that further destabilizes the Middle East. I think our involvement there has destabilized the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilization will occur.”

Privately, many other Republicans concede that they are hearing similar concerns from their constituents about Iraq and are likely to start demanding better answers from the White House, GOP sources said.

“People are fundamentally for us succeeding,” said a Republican strategist with close ties to the Congressional leadership. “But they are uncertain about what the president’s plan is.”

Questions about the direction of U.S. policy in Iraq has been exacerbated in recent weeks by the emergence of anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan. Sheehan, whose son was killed in the war, gained international attention by camping outside Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch during the president’s August vacation and demanding a meeting with him.

It is unclear if Sheehan will continue to attract national interest, but she will be the star attraction at what is being billed as a major anti-war protest to be held Sept. 24 in Washington, D.C.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) will hold an oversight hearing on Iraq within the next few weeks, said his spokesman, John Ullyot. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and various military officials are expected to testify.

“Chairman Warner wants to give Secretary Rumsfeld the opportunity to give his views on Iraq and answer questions from Senators that are relayed through their constituents especially after the August recess,” Ullyot said.

Escalating energy costs are also of concern to many Republicans because they are painfully aware it is an issue that affects every segment of the population.

“Bush is hemorrhaging political capital on energy prices,” said a House GOP leadership aide. “Energy prices affect everyone. Small businesses get affected. The airlines get affected. It is bad.”

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing today to begin reviewing causes that have led to high energy prices. The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a similar hearing Wednesday, and several other panels are expected to follow suit. (See related story, page 1.)

Bush’s top domestic issue — Social Security — might also be in jeopardy. Several Republicans suggested that the current state of affairs all but dooms any action on dealing with it this year. Congressional Republicans, though, blame the White House for failing to deliver a plan for them to try to sell to their constituents back home.

“There was very little guidance about what to say on Social Security,” said a senior Senate Republican aide.

Bush’s shaky support from Congressional Republicans comes as Americans’ overall perception of his stewardship of the country is slipping. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week claimed that Bush’s approval rating has sunk to 45 percent, and a majority of people disagree with his approach to Iraq, gasoline prices, the economy and Social Security.

Congressional Republicans suggested the next few weeks would frame how successful the White House is in advancing its legislative goals this year.

“I think the administration is going to have to reach out and work more to build those relationships and give people a reason to be there for them,” said a Republican Senator.

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