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Splits Show for Bush, GOP

Nearly a year into President Bush’s increasingly rocky second term, Congressional Republicans are resisting or ignoring the White House’s guidance on a host of legislative issues, choosing instead to craft their own agenda without looking to the administration for leadership.

The current relationship between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue stands in marked contrast to Bush’s first term in office, when he aggressively and successfully pushed for a handful of significant domestic items with the help of largely cooperative Republicans eager to ride his political coattails.

Now, however, GOP lawmakers looking ahead to 2006 are preparing for the likelihood that Bush won’t be able to help them the way he did in 2002 and 2004 and are increasingly willing to declare their independence.

“It’s not bad to distinguish yourself from the White House just as a precaution,” said House Republican Conference Vice Chairman Jack Kingston (Ga.).

Republican Members and aides ascribed the differences between Capitol Hill and the White House to a variety of factors, including the president’s sinking approval ratings, his lame-duck status and the cumulative negative effect of Hurricane Katrina, mounting casualties in Iraq and the rapidly escalating Valerie Plame leak investigation.

“They’re a little distracted at the moment,” a House Republican leadership aide said of the White House.

The Hill and the White House have parted ways on several key issues:

• On immigration, Bush has emphasized his desire for a guest worker program, while the Senate GOP and, especially, the House GOP are strongly inclined to address border security first and a guest worker bill second, if at all.

• On Social Security, Bush made reforming the program a centerpiece of his second-term agenda but was never able to persuade Republicans in either chamber to move past the discussion stage on the issue. In Bush’s first term, he was able to persuade even hesitant Republicans to support adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare despite the colossal price tag and the No Child Left Behind Act.

• On defense, Congressional Republicans have remained largely supportive of the Iraq war, but the Senate overwhelmingly approved stricter rules on military interrogation policies despite strong White House objections. And both chambers have been increasingly vocal in demanding better control and more oversight of how the Pentagon spends its money.

• On the Supreme Court, Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers has received a mostly tepid response from Senate Republicans.

Even on issues where Hill Republicans and the White House seem to agree, such as the need to cut spending to offset outlays for Katrina, Congressional GOP leaders have largely formulated their own plans without waiting for guidance or prompting from the administration.

A House GOP leadership aide said the current differences between the two bodies were not the result of Congress ignoring Bush’s cues. “At this point he’s not giving cues,” the aide said.

That in turn is subtly affecting the GOP’s message. Though Republican aides said there has been no conscious rhetorical effort to minimize the White House role, in recent weeks Republican leaders, such as Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), have rarely invoked Bush’s name in their public appearances, even when discussing issues closely identified with Bush such as Iraq.

While the White House may no longer be leading the legislative way, some Republicans cautioned that the two branches are less far apart than the above issues might seem to illustrate.

“I don’t think there is a divergence between our agenda and the White House agenda,” said House Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “Perhaps it’s just a matter of emphasis.”

Lawmakers said some of those apparent differences were attributable to the nature of the issues themselves rather than the overall political environment.

“The failure on Social Security was that [Bush] didn’t give us enough specifics. On immigration he’s been pretty specific,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), a proponent of the administration’s immigration proposals.

But Kolbe said the trouble Bush has faced on immigration is due to its inherently controversial nature rather than the White House’s political problems or lame-duck status.

“This would be a huge problem for Republicans under the best of circumstances,” Kolbe said.

Ultimately, even if Hill Republicans do try to distance themselves from Bush, Members said they recognize their fates are linked.

“Leadership still pretty well understands that the fortunes of Bill Frist, Denny Hastert and George Bush are all tied together,” Kingston said.

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